Town booked their place in the knockout stages of the Checkatrade Trophy this evening after beating Exeter City 4-2 on penalties following a 1-1 draw at St James Park.
Both sides had chances in an entertaining first-half and while Will Henry provided the heroics at one end of the pitch with a string of superb saves, Luke Norris did the business at the other end by opening the scoring with his first goal for the Robins.
Exeter had the better of the chances after the break and got back on level-terms just shy of the hour mark courtesy of David Wheeler’s close-range effort.
It took penalties to decide the outcome of the game and Town came out on top to ensure they were crowned winners of Southern Group C.
Town made six changes from their Emirates FA Cup outing at Eastleigh on Friday with Will Henry, Anton Rodgers, James Brophy, Tom Smith, Ellis Iandolo and John Goddard all handed starts.
Lawrence Vigouroux, Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill, Yaser Kasim and Michael Doughty dropped to the bench with both Sean Murray and Nathan Thompson missing out through injury, whilst Darnell Furlong returned from a one-match ban to take his place amongst the subs.
On what was a very wet evening at St James Park, it was the Reds who fashioned the game’s first opportunity with Nathan Delfouneso dragging wide after being teed up by John Goddard.
Will Henry was then called into action at the other end to keep out Lloyd James’ well-struck free-kick.
Lloyd Jones did well to get in the way of David Wheeler’s venomous shot with the home side enjoying an early spell of pressure.
Town were being forced to do their fair share of defending and had Brad Barry to thank after the defender did brilliantly to get across and put an end to a dangerous looking attack from Exeter.
The tables were then turned with the Reds flexing their attacking muscles at the other end, with Goddard scooping an effort wide.
But that was a warning sign Exeter failed to heed as Town opened the scoring moments later after Luke Norris nodded home from Goddard’s pinpoint corner to open his account for the club.
However, the Grecians responded well to going a goal down and nearly hit back instantly but Ollie Watkins could only flash an effort wide after being teed up by Wheeler.
Watkins then tried his luck again but his shot was deflected out for a corner, before Henry did superbly to block Reuben Reid’s attempt on goal after a mistake allowed the striker to burst clean through on goal.
Exeter were continuing to pile on the pressure before half-time as Watkins was again denied by the outstanding Henry, before Town eventually cleared their lines after Wheeler failed to stab home from close-range.
Town opted to make a change prior to the start of the second-half with Michael Doughty replacing Anton Rodgers.
It was a slow start to proceedings after the interval but the game threatened to spark into life just shy of the hour mark with James thumping a shot against the woodwork after Henry could only half-clear Reid’s ball into the box.
Town then made another change in a bid to inject some fresh legs into the action with Jake Evans replacing Ellis Iandolo.
But the hosts hauled themselves level on the hour mark after James rattled the post yet again, with Wheeler reacting quickest to bury home the rebound.
Town responded by bringing on Yaser Kasim for Tom Smith before Henry did well to get down low and hold Robbie Simpson’s drive.
Exeter were continuing to press the issue but they were unable to make the most of their spell of pressure with Watkins fluffing his lines inside the area once again.
Barry blasted way over at the other end of the pitch before a flurry of subs and bookings disrupted the flow of the game.
Jake Taylor twice went close in the last ten minutes before Henry had to beat a shot away at his near post.
Henry then produced a superb save to thwart Taylor before Doughty warmed the palms of Hamon at the other end of the pitch.
Town hit the bar in the dying seconds but neither team were able to snatch a winner, leaving the game to be decided by a penalty shootout.
And, already knowing that they were through, Town converted all four of their spot-kicks with Michael Doughty, Jake Evans, Raphael Rossi-Branco and Yaser Kasim on target for the Reds.
Lloyd James thudded over his penalty and Lee Holmes saw his spot-kick kept out by Will Henry, meaning that Town finished top of Southern Group C with the draw for the next round set to be made on Thursday morning.
TEAMS AND STATS:
SCORERS - Luke Norris (30), David Wheeler (59).
EXETER CITY - Hamon; Woodman, Simpson, Oakley, Sweeney; Grant, Watkins, James (C); Wheeler (Jake Taylor 66), Reid (Matt Jay 58), McAlinden (Lee Holmes 77).
Subs Not Used - Olejnik, Riley-Lowe, Byrne, Storey.
TOWN - Henry; Barry, Rossi-Branco (C), Jones, Brophy; Rodgers (Michael Doughty 45), Smith (Yaser Kasim 67), Iandolo (Jake Evans 55), Goddard; Delfouneso, Norris.
Subs Not Used - Vigouroux, Ormonde-Ottewill, Furlong, Young.
REFEREE - Brett Huxtable
EXETER CITY - Robbie Simpson.
TOWN - Tom Smith, Lloyd Jones.
ATTENDANCE - 729 (143 Away Fans).