Carlisle Utd's promotion dream dashed by Exeter at the death

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Exeter 3 Carlisle United 2 (6-5 agg): Carlisle to Exeter is a long way for a dream to die.

But this is where it ended for Keith Curle’s team, their promotion dream killed cruelly, dramatically and – ironically – very much in United style, with a decisive goal at the very death.

United had staged one more improbable comeback in a season of many to keep this play-off semi-final alive.

Their two goals in nine closing minutes put extra-time seconds away from Curle and his players.

Then up stepped Jack Stacey, an impressive young loan player at Brunton Park last season, with a stunning strike for the Grecians.

It was the final moments of injury-time and even this was too late for the Blues.

Home fans thumped the front of the press box in their joy.

How painfully it had ended for the away contingent, this season of surges, dips, rises and intense melodrama.

Exeter had the better of the contest overall and looked home and hosed when Ollie Watkins scored the second of his brace.

Substitutes Jason Kennedy and John O’Sullivan, the latter in the 90th minute, then exploded the game back to life for the Blues.

 Jack Stacey

Jack Stacey

Cue Stacey, who drove his team to Wembley by cutting in from the right and sending the ball unstoppably past Mark Gillespie. There were just seconds to go and full-time brought a pitch invasion, a red flare and some devastated expressions from those wearing blue shirts.

As much as anything, it was just a relief to get the game under way after what had felt an endless day of waiting. A couple of hours in advance, a heavy rainshower in Devon had brought groundstaff pitchside, forking areas of sodden turf and remarking the white lines.

This on a surface Curle had noted was more compact than Brunton Park’s wide open spaces.

Danny Higginbotham, Sky’s pundit, felt this would set up the night’s key battles: in the Exeter box, where United would test Paul Tisdale’s defence with set-pieces and long throws. Perhaps Exeter, too, would not pull the Blues around quite as much as they had in Cumbria? That would be the hope.

An unchanged Carlisle team certainly raised that possibility, with Jabo Ibehre an addition to the subs after injury, and Sunday’s saviours, O’Sullivan and Shaun Miller, again on the bench.

Exeter made three changes, Stacey among those stepping up. A roar went up around this Devon stadium moments before kick-off and then the biggest night of United’s campaign was under way. The home side made their intentions clear within the opening seconds, aiming the ball long from the back and particularly into the right channel, where David Wheeler was putting his pace and spring up against Danny Grainger.

Their first few attempts were coped with by Carlisle, but Tisdale’s men plainly fancied this route – and in the 10th minute a similar approach produced the opening goal.

 Danny Grainger

Danny Grainger

Ryan Harley, a scorer on Sunday, was provider this time, controlling with his chest and then turning to arrow it towards Wheeler. He battled past Grainger as the captain stumbled, and his low pull-back was sneaked home by Watkins.

Officially the EFL’s best young player had already had his say on this big night.

Carlisle tried to respond with a Reggie Lambe run, which was terminated on the edge of the box, but, not for the first time in these contests, the pace and ideas were with Exeter in a challenging opening 30 minutes, United’s rearguard sometimes caught between clearing lines and playing away from Tisdale’s bright young frontrunners.

The Blues eventually got a little more of the ball to Nicky Adams, as Lambe looked to pounce on Jamie Proctor’s line-leading.

Luke Joyce had a header blocked from a James Bailey cross but Watkins then set up Holmes for a shot Gillespie grabbed at the second attempt.

The home faithful were enthused any time Watkins glided forward into dangerous space.

Harley sent a shot down Gillespie’s throat and United’s response was so far modest.

Their best spell did, though, then emerge, through a combination of Adams’ persistence and a series of deliveries and long throws.

Lambe made a mess of one good Grainger cross but then Bailey neatly put Adams into the box, requiring Jordan Moore-Taylor to bail out Exeter.

Watkins hurled himself in the way of a Bailey drive as United, thankfully, moved into a higher gear.

This period also saw a big handball shout from those in blue shirts as a Lambe cross was diverted away from Proctor.

Ref Dean Whitestone thought Troy Brown innocent, but United were looking a keener threat at last.

Adams, before the break, missed a great volleyed chance when Joyce picked him out at the far post, before Watkins failed to find a team-mate after a 50-50 at United’s end.

Traditionally, half-time is only just the beginning when these sides meet. Tension was still all around St James’ Park.

Seconds after the restart, Carlisle nearly panicked Exeter decisively, as the ball was allowed to bounce in the box and Adams arrived to test Olejnik.

The Blues were aiming towards most of their 592 fans as they tried to salvage things for the latest time, while Stacey began popping up further forward from right-back as the Grecians looked for a second.

Inevitably, it became more end-to-end as Carlisle went harder for their leveller.

Joyce drilled a shot into a cluster after Devitt broke down the right.

Then Watkins sent Wheeler towards United’s box but a block denied him.

Curle then introduced Shaun Miller, as a second striker. Joel Grant, another weekend scorer, then arrived for Exeter.

A peach of a cross-field Adams ball then nearly put Proctor in, before Gillespie bailed out Gary Liddle after his clearance had been charged down by Watkins.

 John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

O’Sullivan was next into the fightback attempt and put his pace, and a couple of fizzed crosses, into Exeter’s back yard without initial success.

Joyce took aim from 30 yards and smacked one into an advertising board.

This was now approaching the late spell when Exeter have often buckled under blue pressure, but they really should have rendered the semi-final stone dead on 74 minutes, when both Millers were evaded down the left and sub Joel Grant jinked clean through – only to sidestep once too many, allowing Gillespie to save.

And so on it went, still on the knife-edge, and even when Watkins plunged the blade in again in the 78th minute – accepting the ball from a quick Wheeler raid before checking inside and finishing impressively – it was not over.

This is because United found another surge of spirit and instantly pulled one back; Kennedy – on for Michael Raynes – getting the final finish on the line after a scramble of shots and blocks, the midfielder’s 11th of a sadly injury- interrupted season. Grabbing another after this would have been insane even by Carlisle’s 2016/17 standards.

Yet, incredibly, they did it.

In the final seconds of the 90, Adams scampered down the left and aimed it into the heart of the home box. O’Sullivan, who had scored bizarrely on Sunday, this time applied an orthodox head, and it bounced beyond Olejnik.

The away end erupted. But then, five minutes later, the home contingent exploded again as Stacey found the net.

On they go to Wembley. For United, a long journey home of valiant regret.

MARK GILLESPIE – Couldn’t get down in time to keep out Ollie Watkins’ first-half strike. Made a fine save shortly after the hour mark, and made another save to deny substitute Joel Grant. But could do nothing about Watkins’ second

TOM MILLER – Another player that came into the game a bit more in the second period. Delivered plenty of balls into the box, although none of them really created any clear-cut openings

DANNY GRAINGER – Had his work cut out and was the first player to be booked, a few minutes before the hour mark. Never gave up the fight but struggled to get forward as much as he would like due to the quality Exeter had going forward themselves

MICHAEL RAYNES (off for Jason Kennedy on 75 minutes) – As ever, more than willing to chuck his body on the line for the Carlisle United cause. Went down after 52 minutes but battled through for the side. Came off for Jason Kennedy

GARY LIDDLE – Perhaps could and should have done better to cut out the cross which lead to Exeter’s first goal

LUKE JOYCE – At times, the midfielder struggled to cope with the Grecians’ frontline when they counter-attacked at pace. But he did find some space further up the pitch and delivered a good cross late in the first period for Adams

JAMES BAILEY – Does look to be getting better the more he plays for the Blues and produced one or two encouraging moments in the first half

JAMIE DEVITT (off for Shaun Miller on 56 minutes) – Struggled to get into the game in the first half. But the midfield man looked to have had more of an impact on the game after the restart. Taken off for Shaun Miller as the Blues looked to come from 1-0 down

NICKY ADAMS – As always, looked to be a real threat for Carlisle down the wing. Missed a good chance at the end of the first half, though which would have levelled the game back up at 4-4 on aggregate

REGGIE LAMBE (off for John O’Sullivan on 62 minutes) – Like he did in the first leg tie, he started the game in quite an advanced position as he looked to offer support to Proctor. Also sacrificed by Keith Curle during the second period

JAMIE PROCTOR – Again, looked isolated up front in the first half. Worked hard but didn’t get the support he needed in the first half and the ball didn’t manage to quite drop for him when he was in the danger area

Subs: Shaun Miller (on for Jamie Devitt on 56 minutes) – Worked hard after his introduction but didn’t really make an impact in the forward areas; John O’Sullivan (on for Reggie Lambe on 62 minutes) – Booked for a late challenge on Exeter’s Craig Woodman; Jason Kennedy (on for Michael Raynes on 75 minutes) – Got Carlisle’s first, poking home from close-range

Exeter: Olejnik, Stacey, Woodman, Brown, Moore-Taylor, Tillson, Taylor, Holmes (Grant 58), Harley, Watkins, Wheeler. Subs: Pym, James, McAlinden, Croll, Sweeney, Reid.

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