When your entire knowledge of St James Park revolves around the away section – about which the term minimalism could suffice, apart from the time the tiny urinals flooded during one Albion visit – an afternoon in the home end is a glorious shock. Tall, steep and packed, it looked untouched since the 1970s and has the character of a monochrome postcard of George Best shanking past a cram of pipe-smoking elders in duffle coats.
There are looming old cider signs and excellent views over the city if you stand towards the top. A route at the back leads to a tea bar where drinks are £1, pies are £1.60 and an alleyway of barbed wire allows fans to smoke behind the car park. And parked up, ensuring an early kick-off, was a telly van broadcasting this excellent display of League Two football across the world.
A few points separated Exeter from the play-offs and Stevenage from the disaster zone at kick-off, a disparity emphasised when the hosts scored with a free header from Brighton-born former Albion youth team winger David Wheeler after four minutes. Despite missing the genius of Ryan Harley, they doubled their lead when ex-Palarse hotshot Clinton Morrison scored a balletic close-range overhead kick shortly afterwards, celebrating by leading a dance around Stevenage manager Teddy Sheringham, who resembled a foiled wedding crasher in his Sunday best suit.
Imploring his players to calm down might have been a strange call considering their seemingly passive concessions of the opening 20 minutes, but Sheringham was proved right by hindsight. Boro could have capitulated had they panicked – as it was, Dean Parrett curled in a classic 25-yard free-kick five minutes before half-time, starting a period of momentum which culminated in Ben Kennedy heading in the equaliser following a spot of penalty area pinball just before the break. Of the 45 visible Stevenage fans, nine broke into an impressive Poznań dance at this point, although it couldn’t eclipse the appeal at half-time for City fans to help paint the ground during the week, announced with just the right level of charm and pragmatism. Perhaps out of embarrassment, the scoreboard near the away end was never updated to reflect the equaliser.
Paul Tisdale, as it is binding to mention during any report on his team, looked thoroughly dapper in his trilby, and the Exeter manager’s side were reinvigorated when they returned, forcing a clearance off the line almost immediately. Stevenage continued to appear incapable of defending anything inside their own box, bearing the look of a team who could concede at any moment, vulnerable no matter how well they played. Armand Gnanduillet, their French striker loaned from Chesterfield, looked a promising targetman with the rawness of a newborn foal, swiping at cold air when presented with a clear shot on goal from ten yards 15 minutes before time.
Stevenage were duly punished when Wheeler collected a pass on the edge of the area and struck a superb half-volley past ex-Palarse net-picker Chris Day with the outside of his foot. It made them more urgent: Tom Conlon struck the outside of the post with an inspired free-kick, and then Whelpdale raced on to a header dropping from the sky – afforded by some sloppy City play from their own throw-in – to crash a volley into the far corner as a magnificent finale.