It wasn’t Wembley but the outcome was the same and the result felt almost important as Wanderers dug deep to chisel out a priceless win in their play-off quest.
From the flair of their Papa Johns Trophy win over Plymouth, the Whites showed the fortitude needed to overcome more stubborn Devon opposition to secure a first league victory in five games and stay fifth in the table.
Missing inspirational captain Ricardo Almeida Santos through injury, Ian Evatt had to re-build his back line but still managed to oversee a match-winning performance built around a hard-earned clean sheet and Conor Bradley’s first-half goal.
Bradley’s cool finish half an hour in was enough to earn the Whites a seventh away win of the season.
But the afternoon will be more remembered for the sheer determination, desire and battling qualities Wanderers showed to make sure they would kick off a big Easter weekend with maximum points in their quest to secure a top-six finish and a possible Wembley return in the play-offs.
With the bad news that Santos had joined Eoin Toal on the injury list, Wanderers made two changes to their final-winning line-up as they looked to extend their unbeaten away run in the league to three matches.
George Johnston – starting a game for the first time since January – and Luke Mbete both returned to the Whites’ defensive trio alongside Gethin Jones, who took over as skipper.
There was one early scare for the visitors as Alex Hartridge headed just wide from a corner after only five minutes.
But Wanderers gradually turned up the heat on a sun-soaked afternoon as they dominated possession in pursuit of the opening goal.
An Exeter defence marshalled and captained by ex-Wanderer Will Aimson initially kept the Whites at arm’s length but with almost half an hour gone, the Whites’ patience and probing paid off.
Bradley hadn’t scored since netting in a home win over Exeter in December and he repeated the measure with his seventh goal of the season.
Josh Sheehan – having another fine game at the base of the Wanderers’ midfield – provided the through-ball and Bradley stayed calm to draw Josh Blackman before sliding the ball under the City keeper and give his side the lead.
Exeter have improved since their mid-winter loss in the first meeting, though, and responded positively.
Aimson bundled the ball over the line with his arm before the Grecians thought they had levelled again through Sam Nombe’s header which hit the underside of the bar before bouncing clear.
Wanderers replied with Dion Charles firing at Blackman after the top scorer had twice gone close to getting in behind the City defence from through balls from Elias Kachunga and Kyle Dempsey which were just over-hit in a lively end to the first half.
Evatt made a change at the break with Exeter old boy Randell Williams replacing Declan John, who had beren unwell over night, but Wanderers had to ensure a nervy start to the second half as Exeter pressed for an equaliser.
Wanderers needed to ease the pressure and with just over an hour gone they almost snatched a second goal on the break.
Aaron Morley led the counter-attack before Charles slipped the ball into the path of Williams, whose first-time strike looked to be flying into the far corner before Harry Kite got back to block.
Victor Adeboyejo and Dan N’lundulu were then sent on to provide fresh legs and renewed threat before Evatt made a further double switch in midfield with the introduction of MJ Williams and George Thomason.
The moves helped stem the flow as Wanderers also looked to strike again on the break and with five minutes to go they almost fashioned the clinching goal.
Again Randell Williams made a decisive burst down the left and when he pulled the ball back, Thomason steered an effort just wide of the far post.
It was nerve-shredding stuff but where it mattered most Wanderers kept their composure and stood firm.
Despite soaking up pressure, the re-shuffled defence, with Johnston and Mbete standing up to be counted in front of the calming influence of James Trafford, never gave City a clear sight of goal.
And with every player putting in an incredible shift, Evatt’s men got over the line to secure a huge three points they rightly celebrated with a superb away following who will enjoy their long trip home.
Wanderers: Trafford; Jones, Johnston, Mbete; Bradley, Morley (MJ Williams 73), Sheehan (Thomason 73), John (R Williams HT); Dempsey; Kachunga (N’Lundulu, 65), Charles (Adeboyejo 65). Substitutes: MJ Williams, Shoretire, Lee, Thomason.
Booked: Mbete, Thomason
Exeter City: Blackman; Sweeney, Aimson, Hartridge; Key, Collins, McDonald, Kite (Caprice 78), Sparkes (Borge 78); Nombe, Scott (Cox 65). Substitutes: Lee, Harper, Coley, Grounds.
Referee: Craig Hicks
Attendance: 7,530 (Bolton 961)