In the end everything turned out rather well for Exeter City, even if this will be remembered as a night when a golden opportunity to eliminate Liverpool from the FA Cup and register one of the most famous victories in the League Two club’s history slipped through their fingers.
Brad Smith, a 21-year-old Australian who was making only his fifth appearance for Liverpool, equalised 17 minutes from time to spare Jürgen Klopp the embarrassment of an upset that looked on the cards from the moment the teams were announced. The bad news for Liverpool’s manager is that another fixture has to be crowbarred into an already congested schedule and, with that in mind, it was tempting to wonder whether a draw was the worst possible scenario for Klopp.
With 12 Liverpool players missing through injury, the tie being played on a pudding of a pitch, live television cameras in town and Exeter right up for the occasion, all the ingredients were there for a famous upset and for a long period it looked as though Paul Tisdale’s side would deliver one of those famous FA Cupstories.
Smith, however, had not read the script and his close-range left-footed shot, after Jordan Moore-Taylor cleared off the line, means Exeter will travel to Anfield on Wednesday week for a replay and quite a payday. Early estimations are that a share of the gate receipts at Liverpool could be worth as much as £500,000 to Exeter.
That should soften the blow for Tisdale, whose disappointment afterwards reflected how close his impressive side had come to giving Klopp an unwelcome first taste of what the FA Cup is all about. Exeter’s manager had every right to feel proud of his players, who performed with courage and belief.
The home team sensed blood from the outset, took the lead through Tom Nichols’ 10th goal of the season and, when Lee Holmes scored direct from a corner kick on the stroke of half-time, to restore their advantage after Jerome Sinclair had equalised in the 12th minute, Klopp’s face was a picture.
It was not a moment that Adam Bogan, the Liverpool goalkeeper, will want to view again and added to the growing impression that this was going to be Exeter’s night. Bogdan was one of the few recognisable names in the Liverpool side, along with José Enrique, who was making his first appearance for the club in the best part of 12 months, and Christian Benteke.
Liverpool’s £32.5m signing played the full 90 minutes and it must have been a chastening experience for the Belgium international. He was unlucky to see his powerful header tipped over the bar by Bobby Olejnik early in the second half but he was a peripheral figure for much of the evening and could have been forgiven for wondering how his Liverpool career has got to the point where he has ended up playing in a team of virtual unknowns.
Klopp’s starting lineup showed 11 changes from the team that started against Stoke City in the Capital One Cup semi-final first leg on Tuesday night. In fact, take Benteke and Enrique out of that XI and the other nine players had only 18 Liverpool appearances between them.
In that context Klopp could have been forgiven for fearing the worst when Exeter took the lead after nine minutes following a raid down Liverpool’s left flank. Jamie Reid was the creator, the forward showing a mixture of pace and strength to get away from Enrique before delivering a low inch-perfect cross that was expertly steered in by Nichols.
Liverpool, to their credit, quickly responded, albeit after some calamitous Exeter defending. Ryan Kent, who started brightly, looked to pass into the feet of Benteke in the area and, as the ball broke loose, two Exeter players seemed to get in one another’s way. Jordan Tillson ended up swinging a wild left boot at the ball and it fell kindly for Sinclair, who finished clinically from about 10 yards on his first start for the club.
Exeter, however, looked the more dangerous of the two teams. David Noble might have done better when he lifted a shot over the bar and Christian Ribeiro, who was keen to get forward on the right at every opportunity, narrowly headed wide of the far upright with Bogdan beaten.
The Liverpool goalkeeper was not so fortunate four minutes later. Holmes stuck his left-footed corner kick with pace and precision, the ball arrowing over the head of Bogan, who ended up hanging on to the crossbar, and into the far corner of the net to put Exeter back in front.
Although Benteke saw his header saved, Exeter were growing in confidence in the second half and it was difficult to see where the Liverpool equaliser was going to come from. Yet Sheyi Ojo, who was one of five Liverpool debutants, made an instant impact when his break down the left, only two minutes after coming off the bench, led to Smith drilling home.
While “a tad disappointed” with the result, Tisdale could also see the silver lining. “A windfall like this is the sort of cash injection we don’t get,” he said. “We’re going to get a payday and it’s about keeping going what we have, not just signing new players but re-employing players, so it’s a big achievement for us tonight. We’re very frugal, careful with every penny, so I just can’t over-emphasise how important this will be for a club like Exeter.”