United had a point taken out of their grasp with almost the last attack of the game on Saturday afternoon as Padraig Amond pounced to put a late set-piece across the line, with the Blues having held out despite not being at their best.
Speaking candidly about the performance after the game, manager Paul Simpson said: “We didn’t have any life about us and honestly, at this moment in time, I don’t know the answer to it as to why.
“It was a poor performance from us. We can say they’re a good side, and I accept that, they’re second in the table for a reason. They’ve got good players and individuals, but I don’t know whether our group really believed in themselves from that first whistle.
“We looked leggy and lacking in the belief you need to really get the spark going. Saying that, we’ve made some good blocks, our keeper has made some good saves through the first and second half, and we’ve been done by the most basic of sucker punches with a set-play, where we lose the first contact and we started ball watching.
“I think it’s probably fair to say that when I was at Morton School, or even before that at Yewdale Primary School, we were told not to ball watch. It’s really, really simple stuff that’s lost us the game.
“Listen, I’m not sitting here saying that we deserved to win it, because that is absolutely as far from the truth as you could possibly get, we didn’t deserve the three points.
“But we could have held on for a point, and it could have been a really important point, as it was last week. It’s so disappointing to lose it the way we did, but more than anything I’m really disappointed with the way we went about it.
“When you’re that far into the game it’s just about doing your jobs to see it through. We have a thing where we say know your jobs, but more importantly do it, and we didn’t, it’s as simple as that. They’ve beaten us because of it.”
And he confirmed that having got into the dressing room at full-time, it was about addressing the style of the display rather than setting off with any kind of post-match inquest.
“I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t give the players the chance to actually say anything,” he told us. “I don’t know whether they will or not.
“When you make substitutions there’s a changeover of what your roles are, and stuff like that, and maybe there was something in that, I don’t know.
“It seemed pretty clear to me who was picking who up, but as I said, it was ball watching. Whether anybody is prepared to hold their hands up I don’t really know, but as a group we probably all have to hold our hands up because that wasn’t a performance that we can compare to the nine we had before this one.
“There are so many things I can be disappointed with. We didn’t get hold of it and I don’t think we worked their three centre backs anywhere near enough. We were scrambling around trying to change the formula a little bit to see if we could get a foothold in the game.
“I think there was probably once in the first half where we strung four or five passes together, and we flipped it into the box only to have nobody there. In the second half we had little bits of opportunities, but it was nowhere near enough.
“Going into the game we actually thought the spaces were going to be there for our wing backs, and there was acres of space. Kelvin Mellor must have had half an acre out in that right wing position and we hardly found him.
“Saying that, he created a half chance for himself and maybe something could have happened, but let’s be honest I’m clutching at straws talking about any of our chances, because really it’s about the fact that we didn’t play well enough.
“And that’s from a group of people who have been really good. I’m not forgetting that, but I am really disappointed with the way we played. It’s something we’re going to have to look at to see whether our preparation was right, and what we can do to make it better.”
“It wasn’t the level of performance or energy and level of desire that we’ve shown previously,” he continued. “I can accept losing games, it happens, but you have to have done everything you can possibly do to have prevented it.
“If you have, and you do lose, you can hold your hands up. In this one we could have worked harder, kept the ball more and been more competitive. That said, we’ve been done by the most basic of goals just when you feel like you’ve managed to take something.
“If we do our jobs properly we don’t concede, it’s as simple as that. We maybe didn’t deserve a point, but we’d have got it if we’d done what we were supposed to do.
“They dominated, I also accept that, but we’d have gladly taken a point. It was there for us if we’d done the simple things with that set-play.”
But with results elsewhere, and with five games now left to go, the gap to the bottom two places remains at ten points.
“That’s lovely, it’s really nice, and it wasn’t that 10 games ago, that’s for sure,” he told us. “That can go away really quickly and that’s why we’ve got to make sure we’re doing things professionally and as well as we possibly can.
“That’s all I ask. We have to be the best professionals we can be, the best versions of ourselves we can be, and sadly me, the staff, the players - that wasn’t the best version of ourselves for this game.
“We talked about this game being a marker, like it was against Northampton and others we’ve played up at the top of the table. It’s still a marker, but it shows the gulf, the big difference.
“It could have been a really big point today. I’m not sitting here saying I believe we deserved a point, because we probably didn’t, but it could have been a really big point for us and took us one point closer to where we want to be.
“But there is a huge difference, and that’s the total reality of it. I don’t really know how long it will take as a football club for us to be able to get to that level but that’s what we have to strive to do.
“As a football club there has to be a desire to change it, to make sure we’re going to go and compete at the top end of the table.
“Exeter are a benchmark, of course they are, but unfortunately the position we’re in there’s a lot of teams who are a benchmark for us at League Two level that we have to try and work to go and get there.
“Wherever you are, whatever level you’re playing, unless you’re Manchester City or Liverpool at the top of the Premier League, everybody’s got benchmarks.
“Sadly at the moment we’ve got too many that we’ve got to try and work to get closer to. Exeter were as good as we were poor, but we could still have nicked a point out of it. I’m clutching at straws to say that but that was the proof of the game.
“Maybe it shows how far the players have come in the nine previous games, that we could have got a point out of the game, but I just want more energy, more life out of the group.
“We’ve given ourselves a really good chance, put ourselves in a really good position because of what we’ve done, and we have to keep going.
“We’ve got five games - next weekend is a really important weekend, we’ve got two tough games, Walsall away, Mansfield at home, that we have to go and show a better version of ourselves than we did in this one.”
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