Sunday, 22 August 2010
In many respects, the result on the pitch today was irrelevant. This was a day for paying tribute to our sadly departed number 9, a cathartic afternoon of grieving. A win in memory of Adam Stansfield was the result everybody was hoping for. Sadly football has never been one to respect the script.
Emotions were always going to run high and the way the players got through the tributes and played the way they did for 90 minutes was impressive, especially Adam's best friend and Man Of The Match Steve Tully. He was immense in every sense of the word.
Certainly the players coped better than I did. Walking past the Flybe stand entrance towards the Red Square and seeing the hundreds of tributes left for Stanno by the railings brought a lump to my throat. Reading the numerous tributes to Adam in the matchday programme had me choking back tears. When the minutes applause started for him, I welled up and could hold it in no longer.
I've never been much of a crier. I've never been one much for grieving in public, but I clearly wasn't the only one. All around me, grown men who paid to watch Adam put in a tireless shift every week were wiping tears from their eyes.
Adam Stansfield embodied the heart of Exeter City and all that every could be described as good about football. That he was taken from us a month shy of his 32nd birthday with so much to give to both the club and his young family is heartbreaking. I hope God realises when a gem he's signed from us.
But while it would be easy to fill this post with more memories and tributes to Stanno, they have been and will continue to be done elsewhere. The game may have always been for Adam, but it was also about taking three points from Bristol Rovers.
And for much of the first half, this looked like a serious possibility. Exeter started by playing some crisp, impressive passing football and it was no surprise when the Grecians went one up. Steve Tully was sent scampering away down the right touchline, found some space and produced a pinpoint cross for Daniel Nardiello to head home emphatically for his first goal for the club.
It was no less than Nardiello or City deserved and there was no doubt who the goal was for. The players immediately ran to the Exeter bench and collected Adam Stansfield's number 9 shirt before displaying it to all corners of the ground. That one was for Stanno.
For much of the first half, it looked as if Exeter would add a second quite comfortably. Another perfect cross by Tully was headed wide by Scott Goldborne, never the best header of the ball, while the Grecians were involved in what can only be described as tika-taka in the centre of the park.
Liam Sercombe in particular caught the eye with his quick feet a movement. Last season the youngster seemed hesitant and, at times, overawed, but this season he looks like he believes he belongs in the team. With Ryan Harley missing through illness, much of City's best work came through Sercombe.
Rovers, meanwhile, were limited to the odd foray up the field, most of which were tidied up by Richard Duffy or 'Big' Rob Edwards, deputising for the injured Matt Taylor. At 38 Edwards is still a class act and positively relished keeping the Gasheads' front line quiet, at one point unceremoniously dumping a forward on his backside for having the terminity of trying to take the ball past him.
But the nagging fear grew that while City were good in possession, they were still vulnerable with just a one goal lead and so that fear came to pass.
First the impressive Nardiello limped off to be replaced by Jamie Cureton. Given the striker's injury woes this was a major concern and Cureton took a while to get into the game.
Then, on the stroke of half time David Noble, largely solid up to this point, gave the ball away in the centre of the park. Rovers broke and worked the ball into the penalty area. Although the City defence appeared to have things covered, Jo Kuffour was allowed to turn and smashed a shot passed Paul Jones to level the scores.
Exeter were still rattled after the break as Rovers built in confidence and it didn't take long for City to self destruct completely. First a long ball over the top saw Duffy caught one on one with the Bristol striker. Whether he accidentally or deliberately clipped the attacker's ankle, I'm not sure, but as soon as Hoskins went down there was only one outcome and Duffy was already halfway back to the changing rooms before the ref had brandished the red card.
Eight minutes later, Rovers had the lead after the City defence failed to clear the ball properly and after a bit of penalty area pingball Hoskins poked home to give the Gas the lead.
Without Duffy, Exeter reverted to a flat back four, with Billy Jones playing centre-half, while up front John O'Flynn dropped deeper to give the midfield extra support.
But without the extra man, City struggled to impose themselves on the game and twice Paul Jones pulled off some exceptional saves, including one point blank shot from close range that looked destined for the goal.
But Exeter never gave up trying and Tully in particular seemed determined to haul Exeter back into the game single-handed with and all-action display down the right flank. Eventually City settled and started working the Rovers backline again. An equaliser looked highly unlikely but not totally impossible.
You can debate the challenge in the penalty area on James Dunne all you like, and my view is Dunne saw the challenge coming and played for it, but the spot kick offered Exeter a way back into the game and O'Flynn calmly slotted home to open his account for the Grecians and level the scores at two all.
Noble, who had been off the pace for much of the second half, was replaced with Bertie Cozic to give Exeter extra muscle in the centre of the park, while up front Cureton provided a masterclass in how to hold up the ball and work the channels, but despite a positive end from both sides, it remained level, probably a fair result over the course of the 90 minutes.
Under the circumstances, this wasn't a bad point. We were missing Taylor and Harley, two of our best players, while Nardiello only lasted half an hour and we had to play nearly all the second half with ten men. If Goldborne's sitter had gone in, it could have been a different story, but the team showed character to come back. It does suggest that last season's problem of too many drawn home games still hasn't quite been fixed.
But, hey, I'm not the one playing in front of nearly seven and a half thousand people having just lost a well-loved and popular colleague to cancer. Under the circumstances and emotion, we did well.
And, in many respects (and hopefully this won't be taken the wrong way), we needed to get that game out of the system and we needed not to lose. It would be easy for heads to drop and Stanno's death affect the team badly. As it is, the performance and the fightback was one of a mentally strong team and would have done Adam proud.
And secondly, sadly, life goes on for the club and for Tisdale and his team. We've now grieved for Stanno and have to turn our attention to picking up wins, starting with a trip to Leyton Orient on Saturday.
But while we, as a club, have to move on, the little things - the memories, the numerous articles, and the memorial tributes outside the ground show that Adam is gone but will never, ever be forgotten.
RIP Adam Stansfield
HaL's Man Of The Match: Steve Tully. A magnificent, mature display down the right hand side. Rallied the team after Duffy's sending off and his cross for the goal was perfect. The former Weymouth full-back just keeps getting better, even though he's now a veteran.