Exeter City recorded their first Devon derby double over Plymouth Argyle since the 1992-93 season with a richly deserved 2-1 win at Home Park to bolster their chances of staying up and dent the League Two promotion aspirations of their arch rivals.
The Pilgrims led 1-0 at half-time when Reuben Reid scored a penalty after a reckless handball by Exeter captain Danny Coles, but the Grecians turned in a classy second-half show to emerge as deserved winners.
Liam Sercombe restored parity with a deflected long-range strike on 69 minutes and, with eight minutes left, Eliot Richards bagged his third goal in two games to claim victory for Paul Tisdale’s side and add to a 3-1 win against the Pilgrims earlier this campaign.
Argyle made two changes to the side that drew at Accrington, with Plymothians Paul Wotton and Luke Young returning to the midfield in place of Rommy Boco and Dominic Blizzard. They both dropped to the bench.
The Grecians went into the game naming an unchanged side for the third match running.
The outstanding Tom Nichols played as a lone striker with Matt Oakley in the ‘number ten’ role, flanked by Richards on the left and Sercombe on the right.
The pre-match drizzle added zip to a fantastic Home Park playing surface and it was Exeter who settled first. Sercombe saw a shot blocked and then delivered a cross to the back post, but it was beyond Nichols lurking in the six-yard box.
Conor Hourihane had Argyle’s first shot with a volley from 20 yards, but it was brilliantly blocked by Matt Gill and there was more great blocking, this time from Coles to deny Reid.
Nichols fired straight at Jake Cole from 20 yards after a neat passage of play, while Argyle’s Young saw a shot deflect just over the bar.
From the resulting corner, Matt Parsons’ shot deflected wide and, from another corner that Exeter failed to clear, Andres Gurrieri was denied by more good defending from the Grecians.
Exeter earned some respite when Richards won a free-kick 25 yards out and 15 yards in from the touchline, but Craig Woodman’s delivery failed to beat the first man. It was a wasted opportunity for the Grecians.
Bennett sent a dipping volley narrowly over the bar after linking up well with Nichols, while Reid was also off target for the Pilgrims when he dragged a shot wide from 20 yards.
That pretty much summed up the opening quarter with both teams looking to play football, but failing to test the two goalkeepers. Reid then barged his way past Moore-Taylor, but his low cross was turned behind by the alert Coles.
Richards’ ambitious attempt, which went out for a throw in, brought ironic cheers from a bumper Home Park crowd and the on-loan Bristol Rovers man tried his luck once again from distance and won a corner for his side.
Curtis Nelson went into the book for a late foul on Sercombe, but the referee had played a good advantage with Nichols in possession. He spurned a great chance to put the ball on a plate for Oakley with a cross that was far too over-hit for his team-mate.
Argyle then went closest to scoring on 39th minute when Reid was played in on the left, got the ball onto his left foot and hammered a shot against the angle of post and bar from 15 yards.
It was certainly the closest either side had come to scoring and, as Argyle attacked once more, Matt Gill was booked for persistent fouling.
Exeter were letting themselves down in the final third and a poor pass by Nichols led to Exeter missing out on another chance to create something when Sercombe was free and in acres of space.
Then on the stroke of half-time, Coles inexplicably gave away a totally needless penalty with a stupid handball from Parsons’ cross. Reid dispatched the spot-kick with aplomb for his 20th goal of the season, despite Artur Krysiak going the right way.
Argyle were quickly on the attack with Hourihane forcing Krysiak into a superb save low down to his right with a fierce drive from 20 yards.
However, it was advantage Argyle at the break thanks to Coles’ moment of madness. There was no one near him when the ball came in, but his Superman-like dive and consequent handball gave the referee no option but to award the kick. It also earned Coles a yellow card.
The second half started with Nichols delivering a low ball across the face of goal that Bennett inadvertently turned behind for a goal-kick at the far post, and Nichols struck a fine shot across goal after linking well with Sercombe, but the ball came back off the inside of the far post.
Argyle responded with Hourihane picking out Reid with a lovely pass, but Reid’s shot was straight at Krysiak and Argyle’s top scorer lashed a first-time shot goalwards from 18 yards that Krysiak did well to keep out.
Reid was comfortably Argyle’s danger man and he again surged forward with the ball from deep before firing straight at Krysiak from 25 yards. By then, Exeter had brought Matt Grimes on for Gill and he was looking to get on the ball as much as possible. However, Exeter’s final ball continued to be poor, with Butterfield firing a cross over the bar when well placed.
Richards was off target again from distance for Exeter and Grimes forced Cole into a save low down to his right with a shot from distance. City were certainly enjoying the lions’ share of possession with Home Park becoming a little edgy.
The Grecians deserved a goal and it duly came on 69 minutes. Another patient passing move led to the ball coming to Sercombe and he shifted it onto his left foot and let fly from 25 yards. The ball took a big deflection, looped high into the air and into the far corner.
Straight from kick-off, Exeter attacked again and Richards spurned a glorious chance when he was played in on the right, but pulled his shot just wide of the far post. It was end-to-end stuff by then. Neal Trotman’s header was hacked off the line by Butterfield and Reid smashed the rebound over the bar as Argyle hit back.
Marvin Morgan and Durrell Berry replaced Parsons and Tope Obadeyi with 17 minutes remaining and Young forced Krysiak into a smart stop with a well-hit free-kick.
Grimes screwed one wide at the other end for Exeter and Richards was denied by a Max Blanchard block. Sercombe then forced Cole into another save, with Oakley wasting the rebound with the goalkeeper grounded.
However, the pressure eventually told as Nichols turned brilliantly, ran at goal and laid the ball on a plate for Richards to hammer into the roof of the net. There was a suspicion of offside, but that mattered little to Exeter, who celebrated wildly with their supporters in the far corner of the ground.
By then, Argyle were a distant second best as Exeter passed the ball with great confidence. Sercombe lashed a shot just over the bar as Argyle semi-cleared a corner, but as the game entered three, minutes of stoppage time, Argyle went on the attack.
Trotman headed wide from a corner kick, but it was as close as the Pilgrims came as the Grecians held on for a famous win.
Plymouth Argyle (3-5-2): Cole; Blanchard, Trotman, Nelson; Gurrieri, Young, Wotton (Banton 79), Hourihane, Parsons (Berry 73); Reid, Obadeyi (Morgan 73). Substitutes (not used): Boco, Blizzard, Harvey, Purrington, Dawson (gk).
Goal: Reid (pen) 45.
Bookings: Nelson, Wotton.
Exeter City (4-2-3-1): Krysiak; Butterfield, Coles, Moore-Taylor, Woodman; Bennett, Gill (Grimes 58); Sercombe, Oakley, Richards; Nichols (O’Flynn 90). Substitutes (not used): Pym (gk), Baldwin, Davies, Wheeler, Parkin.
Goals: Sercombe 69, Richards 83.
Bookings: Gill, Coles.
Referee: B Madley (West Yorkshire).