At least 1500 Dons fans made the trip down to StJames's Park on a mild autumnal afternoon, forunquestionably the biggest cup game in the 4 yearssince the theft & relocation of the original club, toan unsightly stretch of roadworks in Buckinghamshire -and after a brave, determined performance, aided andabetted by fantastic, unwavering support, everyoneconnected with the real Dons can look back on theoccasion with immense pride, despite the resultultimately going against them.
Exeter City, 7th in the Conference, wasted no time ingoing for the jugular, with some quick and incisiveattacks that largely set the tone for the afternoon.The Dons, however, repelled their hosts' initialadvances and even managed to create a half-chance atthe other end, when a chipped pass from the right sideof the area by Steve Wales, found Paul Barnes justbeyond the far post, who did well to connect at fullstretch, only to turn the ball back into the sidenetting.
But after 7 minutes, Exeter went straight up the otherend to open the scoring, when Lee Phillips picked theball up on the left, got round the back of the Donsdefence and played a perceptive pass right across theface of goal to the far post, to present the totallyunmarked Andy Taylor with a tap-in, and probably theeasiest goal he'll ever score.
With the wind now well and truly in their sails, thehome side then went on to create a succession offurtherchances. A good passing move set up Paul Buckle on theedge of the box for a shot that was well blocked,Jamie Mackie then fired just wide after a buccaneeringrun into the right side of the area, and even theExeter defence suddenly fancied their chances ofgetting in on the act, with Danny Woodards making apowerful run forwards, only for his subsequent 30-yardeffort to drift well wide.
Exeter continued to threaten and on 27 minutes reallyshould have made it 2-0, when Phillips made anotherrun down the left, before cutting inside and layingthe ball square to Jon Challinor, who had time andspace to tee up his shot, only to drive it horriblylow & wide from 15 yards out.
But then the Dons managed to put together their firstreal spell of possession and see what the weather waslike in their opponents' half. This resulted in a30-yard shot off-target from Steve Wales, and thengood interplay between Wes Daly & Roscoe D'Saneresulted in an effort from Daly thatdrifted narrowly over the bar. More disappointing foryoung Wes was the fact that he injured himself in theprocess and had go off, with Luke Garrard coming on toreplace him, after 37 minutes.
Just before that substitution, though, the Dons hadsuffered a blow when both Lee Kersey and Steve Watsonwere shown yellow cards by the referee, after Kerseyhad tangled with Mackie, on the Exeter left.
Then, on 42 minutes, Exeter struck again to grab asuperb second goal and extend a lead that no-one couldsay flattered them. Challinor picked the ball up onthe left, made his way towards the edge of the areaandsaw Andy Little marginally off his line, beforecurling an magnificent shot above & beyond the Donskeeper, into the far corner of the net, to makeconsiderable amends for his earlier miss. A goalworthy of the occasion, to rival Wes Daly's beauty atHampton & Richmond just over a year ago, and RobUrsell's piece of magic at Bromley, the year beforethat.
With half-time almost upon them, the Dons ralliedbriefly, with Barnes sending over a good cross fromthe right, which was well gathered by Exeter 'keeperMartin Rice, and then a fine through ball from Garrardalmost put D'Sane clear, only for Rice to get therefirst once again.
The Dons started the second half with Steve Butler onfor Lee Kersey, sensing they could make a comeback,but immediately were almost punished twice by theincreasingly dangerous Mackie, first with a trickymeandering run that eventually put him one-on-one withAndy Little, who made a fine save, and then skippingpast Butler on the left-side of the area, beforepulling his shot wide.
Having survived these early scares, Dons made a coupleofforays forward themselves. Luke Garrard broke welldown the left and, with Exeter defenders closing in,did well to send over a cross that Rice gathered atthe near post. Then Byron Bubb was fouled on a chargetowards goal, only to send the ball high and wide from30-yards out, after the free-kick had been playedshort to him.
It was then the turn of Exeter to threaten furthergoals, with a couple more opportunities for Mackiewho, by now, was leading the Dons a merry dance.Firstly, he made a powerful run towards goal from theleft, with Little saving well at his feet, and thencutting in from the left once again, to hit a shotthat appeared to take a couple of deflections, beforelooping just over the angle of the crossbar and farpost.
In between these two chances, there was relief for theDons when Mickey Haswell was able to continue, havingreceived a couple of minutes of treatment following aclash with Woodards. Mackie was then substituted on 63minutes, but there was no let-up for the Dons, withhis replacement Adam Stansfield almost immediatelyforcing a fine parry from Little, with a fierce drive.
But then the Dons got their reward for a much moreassertive second-half display. Byron Bubb picked theball up on the left, just inside the Exeter half, andchipped a great pass over the top of the defence, intoRoscoe D'Sane, who found himself clear on theleft-side of the area, before running in on the angleand showing ice-cool temperament, to slide the ballpast the advancing 'keeper. Cue frenzied celebrationsfrom the travelling fans. With 25 minutes to go, therewas hope for the Dons once again.
The goal, however, only served to fire up the homeside and they fashioned two quick chances, that sawChallinor just off target with a long-range effort andthen Stansfield firing well wide from further in.
With twenty minutes remaining, Dave Anderson made hisfinal substitution, with Darren Grieves on for SteveWales. And it almost paid dividends straight away,when Bubb delivered a delicious ball in from the left,only for Grieves, with defenders very tightly markinghim, to loop a header into Rice's arms.
Play then switched to the another end, as Exeterlooked to restore their two-goal advantage and surelyput the tie to bed. Firstly Antony Howard produced asuperb last-ditch tackle to prevent Phillips breakingclear on goal, then Stansfield charged down anattempted clearance from Little, only for the ball togo wide, before another effort from Challinor wasparried by Little and cleared from in front of him.
On 76 minutes, Stansfield finally did put the ballin the net after it had ricocheted around the edgeof the six-yard box and into his path - only for thelinesman to rule him offside.
The Dons could not only breathe again, but they alsoattacked again, with experienced Conference campaignerSteve Watson at the heart of the action. It was hischipped pass forward from midfield, that was helped onby Grieves to D'Sane, who tried a first time sidefootvolley from the edge of the area, that looped justpast the left-hand post.
Watson himself then tried a 20-yard curler that wasnarrowly wide of the other side of the goal, but hisnext involvement was considerably more painful forhim, when he was fouled by Exeter's Billy Jones, whowas lucky not to get at least a booking for histroubles.
Jones then almost added insult to injury, with amarauding run down the left and a fine cross, whichwas well gathered by Little, before a dangerousinswinging corner from the other side caused a momentof panic in the Dons ranks, before being scrambledclear.
With the game now into the minimum of 3 minutes to beadded on, there was time for just one more lateflurry from the Dons, with D'Sane delivering a decentcross from the right-side of the area, that Ricemanaged to claim just before Grieves arrived on thescene.
Once the stoppage time has elapsed, the referee blewhis last blast of the afternoon, to signal the end ofthe Dons FA Cup hopes for this season. Their fans,disappointed but not disheartened, rose as one toacclaim their heroes,as they made their departure from the field of combat.
Victory for the Dons would have seen them host League2 side Stockport in the 1st Round Proper, but the daywas not just about the result of a football match.During and upon their return home, Dons supportersbellowed songs of triumph long into the night, notonly in celebration and acknowledgement of theirclub's achievements, but more importantly, and asExeter, Stockport and several other clubs would agree,in recognition of what the fans had achieved.