Matt Jay’s late penalty conversion earned Exeter City three points on Saturday as they came from behind twice to beat Bradford City, 3-2, at St James Park.

The Bantams led at the break through debutants Charles Vernam and Ollie Crankshaw, but were beaten by headed goals from Pierce Sweeney and Ryan Bowman and a late penalty from Matt Jay.

Matt Taylor named four changes from the Exeter side that beat Stevenage on Tuesday. 30-year-old Robbie Willmott made his full debut for the Grecians, while Ben Seymour, Jake Caprice and Alex Hartridge were dropped to the bench. Tuesday’s match winner Rory McArdle did not feature at all as he begins his recovery from an injury sustained late in the tie.

Bradford brought three changes down to the West Country. Vernam, Crankshaw and Jordan Stevens made their first appearances for the Bantams, with Billy Clarke, Danny Rowe and Gareth Evans each missing out. Harry Pritchard returned among the substitutes following a complete injury recovery.

Story of the match

First half

Exeter started very brightly. Utilising their tricky feet on the wings, the Grecians saw a number of good half-chances fall their way in the opening exchanges. Bowman linked up well with Jack Sparkes down the left flank, and City had a strong penalty appeal ignored by referee Benjamin Speedie after 10 minutes.

Neat work by Matt Jay and captain Jake Taylor along the left opened an opportunity for the latter to fire in an inch-perfect cross. Both Bowman and Sparkes leapt for the header, with Bowman’s effort blocked on the line by what appeared to be a hand. Speedie was disinterested.

Against the run of play, Bradford took the lead after 17 minutes. On one of the few occasions the Bantams had seen possession, debutant Vernam led a rapid counterattack before laying the ball off to Callum Cooke. Cooke’s initial shot was blocked, but a stranded Jokull Andresson could only watch as 24-year-old Vernam latched onto the rebound and thundered home.

The match opened up noticeably after the goal, as Bradford began to settle into rhythm for the first time. Exeter dropped in intensity, and they were forced to make an early substitution as Lewis Page trudged off with a suspected injury – Caprice taking his place.

Exeter equalised five minutes before the break through the unlikely source of defender Sweeney. Sparkes sent a teasing corner delivery deep into the box which Irishman Sweeney met at the back post and nodded home for his first goal of the season.

As the fourth official raised his board for additional time at the end of the half, the visitors took the lead again through Crankshaw. The 22-year-old bore down on the defence as a pass from Sweeney went amiss, and he guided it around Andresson before coolly slotting home into an empty net.

Second half

Bradford flew out of the blocks for the second half, and within five minutes had seen two chances to double their advantage go begging.

Exeter equalised on the hour mark. Debutant Willmott found space wide on the left and floated an inch-perfect delivery towards the ever-threatening Bowman, who got up well and headed beyond the outstretched arms of ‘keeper Sam Hornby.

The game always felt like there was one last twist in the tale to come, and it fell in Exeter’s favour with 10 minutes left on the clock. Bowman was cynically brought to the ground after latching on to a long ball forward. Jay stepped up to the spot-kick and converted it by the skin of his teeth as Hornby got a touch on the ball on its way in.

Exeter’s victory sees them leapfrog up five positions to third, the lower echelon of the automatic promotion spots. Bradford suffer their first loss since mid-December, and their remarkable progress up the bottom half of the league takes a hit as they stay put in 17th.

Takeaway from the match

Down but never out

Exeter were on top for the lion’s share of the game, and they worked the ball with confidence despite falling behind on two occasions. There was a period before the break in which they took their foot off the gas, but a halftime talk from Taylor appeared to knock the fight back into them and the Grecians romped home to claim the points maximum in style.

Man of the match

Ryan Bowman – Exeter City

Bowman put on a stellar display of guile and wit as he caused a consistent threat to the Bradford backline. His link-up play when gravitating towards the flanks offered City a great deal of space with which to work with, and he scored to level before winning the penalty that earned Exeter all three points.