The home side took the lead in injury-time at the end of the first half, when Craig Woodman smashed home from distance after a clever free-kick routine from the Grecians.
Four minutes after the restart they doubled their advantage, when a speculative Jimmy Keohane effort slipped under goalkeeper Sam Slocombe on a damp pitch.
Despite the defeat, Fleetwood Town being held to a point at home to Southend United was enough to ensure the Iron secured promotion – having held a five point lead over their rivals going into the afternoon’s games.
Regardless of the short-term disappointment of the result on the day, promotion success marks a significant turnaround from recent seasons, with United managing to bounce back at the first attempt following relegation from League One last year.
It is a feat made all the more remarkable by the team managing to avoid defeat in each of manager Russ Wilcox’s first 28 games in charge until today’s loss at Exeter, after the Hemsworth-born boss took control of first team affairs following predecessor Brian Laws’ departure in November.
Such a run has seen the Iron smash a lengthy list of club records, while also establishing a new Football League and worldwide record for the longest unbeaten run by a manager from the start of their reign.
However, the defeat against the Grecians means United now go into their final-day meeting with York City at Glanford Park next weekend knowing they almost certainly require a win in order to have any completing a historic season by clinching the League Two title.
Wilcox named an unchanged side from the team who secured all three points on Easter Monday courtesy of a 1-0 home win over Oxford United, with Matt Godden returning to the bench in place of Etienne Esajas.
Meanwhile, Exeter boss Paul Tisdale made three changes from Monday’s 2-1 derby defeat to relegation rivals Torquay United as Pat Baldwin, Matthew Gill and Tom Nichols dropped out of the starting line-up.
Replacing the trio were captain Danny Coles, Keohane and John O’Flynn respectively – with the hosts starting the afternoon in a 4-4-1-1 formation.
The home side began with the urgency of a team needing points to stave off the threat of relegation, and had United penned back inside their own half defending a Matt Oakley free-kick inside the opening two minutes which was eventually cleared by Michael Collins.
Four minutes later the hosts came forward again through O’Flynn, this time countering on the Iron having seized possession in midfield. The Grecians striker worked his way into the area before firing at goal, but saw his effort deflected wide for a corner; the subsequent delivery being lofted wastefully well beyond all those in red and white who had moved up-field for the set-piece.
Not to be deterred in their pursuit of any early goal which would ease their relegation fears, Exeter continued to press and next to try his luck was Woodman on eight minutes. The left-back cut inside onto his right and unleashed an ambitious effort from all of 35-yards, but saw Iron goalkeeper Slocombe equal to it as the 25-year-old gathered well in difficult conditions.
Having spent much of the opening stages on the back-foot, United found themselves on the attack for the first time with 14 minutes gone when tidy interplay on the left between Marcus Williams, Terry Hawkridge and Dave Syers almost set the latter through on goal. Although Syers was unable to profit in that instance, a better opportunity came his way just two minutes later, but he was again denied when his half-volley was blocked having been teed up by Sam Winnall.
The Iron had steadily grown into the contest, but midway through the first half it was Exeter who looked dangerous once more when O’Flynn caused problems as he twisted and turned inside the box. Having manoeuvred space, the forward then pulled the ball back towards the penalty-spot; the Iron surviving the scare thanks largely to Elliot Richards operating on a different wavelength to his team-mate as he failed to latch onto the intended pass.
Richards had the chance to redeem himself as little as four minutes later, when the ball fortuitously fell his way in the box as Scot Bennett nodded a deep Woodman free-kick from halfway into his path. The midfielder shot instinctively on the turn, but blazed well over to waste the opportunity.
Two minutes later, Winnall picked up the ball on the edge of the Grecians area before carrying purposefully towards goal and playing into the feet of Syers. The former Doncaster midfielder attempted a clever back-heel in a bid to release his colleague beyond the last line of Exeter, only for the home defence to read the play and avert the danger.
Despite that threat from United, it was predominantly the home side having the better of the game, and just past the half-hour mark Slocombe was called into action again. Liam Sercombe – who netted a brace against the Iron in October – collected in space prior to blasting at goal from distance, with a wicked deflection off Richards threatening to wrong-foot the Iron number one until he recovered sufficiently to collect.
Exeter then should have gone in front with four minutes of the half remaining, when Sercombe’s cross to the back-post picked out Woodman who took the ball down expertly. Woodman showed composure to calmly pick his spot, but saw his effort deflected narrowly over for a corner when it appeared to be initially destined for the net.
If that was to serve as a warning for the Iron, they were not to heed it on the stroke of half-time as Woodman himself put the Grecians in front with a superb strike from 25-yards. A free-kick routine saw Danny Butterfield square short into the path of his colleague, with the 31-year-old running onto the ball and lashing beyond Slocombe to give his side a slender but arguably deserved lead at the interval.
Having been shaken by a nightmare end to the first half, United suffered similar horror just four minutes after the restart when the home side doubled their lead through Keohane. The midfielder picked up the ball from Oakley before driving forward and hitting a speculative effort from range; his shot on the sodden pitch squirming under Slocombe to make it 2-0 to Exeter.
Wilcox responded to that goal almost immediately by making two positive substitutions in the form of Deon Burton and Hakeeb Adelakun replacing Winnall – who seconds before had fired a header from a Eddie Nolan cross narrowly over – and Collins respectively.
Buoyed by their goals either side of the break, Exeter pushed forward with renewed confidence on 57 minutes as the troublesome O’Flynn negotiated space to shoot with Slocombe narrowing the angle. The Grecians striker struck towards goal, only to see David Mirfin launch himself in front of the shot; claims for handball waved away by referee Trevor Kettle.
The hosts remained in the ascendancy around the hour-mark as they sought a third goal to kill the game off, with United struggling to find any real rhythm likely to provide the catalyst of a fight-back and failing to create any clear-cut opportunities. That looked open to change on 65 minutes when Exeter goalkeeper Christy Pym handballed after sliding outside of the area of the ball, but Hawkridge’s free-kick was cleared with ease by the hosts.
Such chances were too few and far between as far as the Iron were concerned, with Exeter instead the team who looked the most likely. Indeed, with 69 minutes gone they came close to extending their advantage when Keohane’s shot from Oakley’s corner was blocked by Mirfin after mild panic in the United six-yard-box.
With 20 minutes remaining Wilcox made his final permitted change when he introduced Paul Hayes in place of Terry Hawkridge, in a last attempt to find the spark which would get his side back into the game. Exeter’s Tisdale responded in kind a minute later, bringing on Tom Nichols in favour of the impressive O’Flynn.
One of the Iron substitutes, Adelakun tried his best to salvage something on 73 minutes when his deflected drive drew a corner. The youngster himself whipped in the set-piece at pace, with Nolan’s flicked header finding only the side-netting as the home side began to drop deeper in an effort to protect their lead.
However, the outcome had an ever-increasing sense of inevitability about it as another United move broke down in the final-third when Hayes was unable to pick out Paddy Madden with a pass on 81 minutes to sum up the Iron’s afternoon. Three minutes later, Exeter made their second switch of the day when Richards was withdrawn and replaced by Ashley Grimes.
Desperate in their pursuit of two late goals, the Iron advanced again as the game moved towards injury-time, but they – and Madden specifically – found their route to goal blocked once again by a determined Exeter back-line. That was to be the tale of United’s day, with referee Kettle calling time soon after to signal the Iron’s first defeat for 29 games.
United now head into their final game of the campaign against York City at Glanford Park next Saturday knowing the primary aim for the season has already been achieved, but that the prospect of lifting the League Two title lies out of their hands.
To claim their first league honour since being crowned League One champions in the 2006/2007 season would mark a spectacular turn of fortune for the club, who had endured two relegations in the space of the last three years.
Those relegations began two seasons after a 2008/2009 play-off final victory over Millwall lifted United into the Championship, with the Iron now heading in the right direction once again by securing their place in League One for next year.
Exeter City: Pim; Woodman, Moore-Taylor, Coles (capt.), Butterfield; Richards (Grimes, 86), Bennett, Oakley, Sercombe; Keohane; O’Flynn (Nichols, 72).
Substitutes not used: Krysiak, Baldwin, Parkin, Wheeler, Gill.
Scunthorpe United: Slocombe (capt.); Williams, Mirfin, Canavan, Nolan; Sparrow, Collins (Adelakun, 52), Syers, Hawkridge (Hayes, 70); Madden, Winnall (Burton, 52).
Substitutes not used: Severn, Ribeiro, Waterfall, Godden.
Referee: Trevor Kettle (East Midlands).
Attendance: 4,187 (664 away).