Exeter City’s Under-16s suffered a penalty shoot-out defeat at the hands of Tranmere Rovers in their Football League National Final last weekend.
Despite trailing 1-0 at half-time a strong second half performance saw the young Grecians fight back and grab a well-deserved equaliser through the instrumental Jack Sparkes on 65 minutes.
Despite being on the front-foot for the remainder of the game City were unable to turn their dominance into any more goals. Once the full-time whistle had sounded, with the Football League deciding there would be no extra-time, the fate of the winners was to be settled by the lottery of a penalty shoot-out. A 5-4 scoreline after five penalties each went in favour of Rovers and Exeter were to be the unlucky losers in unfortunate circumstances.
Despite the defeat, ECFC Academy Manager, Simon Hayward, was full of praise for the Exeter Under-16s and congratulated Tranmere on the victory.
In a match where fine margins proved to be so important the game started evenly with both sides trading possession and territory as they looked to gain the upper hand in the contest.
No great chances were carved out by either side, however the Devon club had to deal with a number of fouls and although this led to attacking set pieces it did stop any momentum they had whilst going forward in open play.
That tactical approach by the Birkenhead side meant it was the South West team who threatened more from dead balls, however despite having a number of free kicks and corners swung into dangerous areas, they were unable to really test the Tranmere goalkeeper.
Midway through the first period Rovers grabbed the crucial opener with a long range strike. With no one at fault for the goal, the 25-yard effort was superbly taken and looked to have given the North West outfit the initiative.
The Grecians enjoyed one particular bright passage of play as they searched for an equaliser before half-time, with Sparkes sliding the ball behind the defence inside the 18-yard box from a free kick, however it just avoided another City shirt and they went into the interval one goal down.
Confidence and morale was high in the dressing room and Exeter’s youngsters came out fighting in the second period.
With plenty of possession, the Devon club played on the front foot and played a lot of the game in the final third of the pitch. They opened up the Tranmere defence on numerous occasions as they looked to level the scores.
Ethan Ampadu sent a shot that went narrowly wide, whilst Ampadu moments later was unable to find a team mate when he tried squaring the ball across the box when it perhaps have looked easier to score himself.
On the hour mark, much like the semi-final against Southend United, the formation was tweaked by the ECFC coaching staff and more men were thrown forward in the search of a goal.
The switch seemed to add more impetus to the Exeter play and it almost instantaneously resulted in an equaliser. James Dodd found Lewis Wilson in the box, but Wilson was unable to get a decent strike on the ball, and his tame shot was easily saved by the ‘keeper at the near post.
The Devon outfit, who had numerous shouts for a penalty turned down earlier on in the match, were finally given a lifeline on 65 minutes when Sparkes cut in from his wing and was brought down by a clumsy challenge from the Rovers defender. Sparkes buried the resulting spot-kick and parity was rightfully restored.
The Grecians’ attacking momentum got stronger courtesy of the goal and it looked like there was only one side who were going to go on and win the tie.
Wilson came close to scoring again when he was a whisker away from connecting to a low cross from the left whilst Will Dean saw a god effort from the edge of the box blocked. Sparkes was on the end of an inswinging Dean free kick, however his touch went just wide, whilst minutes later, a routine catch for the Tranmere goalkeeper was dropped near the feet of Sparkes, however he was unable to bundle the ball home from close-range as the keeper recovered quickly.
Play was stopped with eight minutes remaining as a Rovers defender suffered a horrible injury, however the stoppage allowed the North West club some respite from the bombardment of Exeter pressure.
The energetic Sparkes continued to terrorise the Rovers defence in the closing stages and after seeing a spectacular overhead kick blocked he perhaps came the closest to snatching a winner in the last minute when he got on the end of a header, sending a volley that came back off of the inside of the post.
The full-time whistle blew with the teams locked at 1-1 and despite an agreement between both sides to play a period of extra-time the Football League decided that the match would go straight to penalties to decide the fate of the trophy.
Despite scoring their first four kicks, the fifth was subsequently missed by City. Tranmere converted their fifth penalty to win the game and inflict the worst kind of defeat on Chad Gribble and his team when they deserved so much more after an excellent season and a superb second half performance.
ECFC Academy Manager, Simon Hayward: “The lads have done great and it is really disappointing they have lost here. It was just one of those nights, but despite losing here, I am very proud of the season they have had. It is just really unfortunate that the only two defeats they have suffered this season have been in two finals.
“I feel if the match had gone in to a period of extra-time our momentum would have seen us through as we were attacking with real purpose. When the boys lost to Bristol Rovers in the Regional Final we felt like the boys didn’t solve the problems they were posed, however in the second half today the boys found solutions to everything and produced a dominant display.
“I have to thank Derby County for the use of their facilities in what was a good day at their training ground and I have to thank the Exeter fans that came to support our lads. To come up to Derby and support the guys is fantastic and we appreciate all the support they have given us.
“I’m disappointed with the loss of course, but hopefully the boys can learn from this experience and use it to become better footballers over the coming years. This day will benefit them on their footballing journey, which will hopefully see them become professional footballers for Exeter City in the long run.”