A drizzly summer evening at Chippenham Town’s Hardenhuish Park home set the scene for the latest outing in Exeter City’s pre-season preparations.
Chippenham is pretty much in Great Western Grecian territory, and there was a fair sprinkling of City fans present to cast an eye over 15 of City’s younger representatives.
What they witnessed was a pretty competitive match against a team who finished just in the top half of last season’s Southern League Premier Division – three steps below League Two.
City had just the lion’s share of seven goals, four of them from the penalty spot, and the home side got close to salvaging parity, after finding themselves 4-1 down within the hour.
City started the match with the following line-up: Christy Pym; Aaron Dawson, Jordan Tillson, Jordan Moore-Taylor, Elliott Frear; Jacob Cane, Ollie Knowles; Elliott Chamberlain, Jimmy Keohane, Jake Gosling; Tom Nichols. Included in the Chippenham line-up was the familiar face of new signing Lee Phillips.
There was little action of note early on, but a slick City counter attack in the 11th minute led to the deadlock being broken. Nichols fed Chamberlain on the right, and his trickery drew a desperate – and illegal – challenge which resulted in a penalty, from which Nichols gave keeper Josh Dempsey no chance.
Far from overawed, Chippenham replied with a spell of pressure, during which impressive home target man Alan Griffin had a half-hit overhead shot easily saved by Pym, and Tillson rescued the situation with a clearing header for a corner after Pym had been drawn out of position.
While the home side were having at least their share of possession, City were using theirs to better advantage, and a tremendous passing movement down the right in the 18th minute saw Dawson break free to the bye line. His pull back was perfect for Nichols, whose firm side footed finish provided a fitting climax to the move.
Chippenham continued to play their part, and Griffin blazed well over when he might have done better. Another flowing City move found Gosling unmarked, but his shot lacked the power to seriously trouble Dempsey. From the resulting corner, the ball found its way to Chamberlain, whose stinging 20 yard effort was parried to safety.
On 36 minutes Chippenham pulled one back from the spot, Griffin converting after Dawson had hauled Phillips down.
City then had a good spell just before the break. First Keohane put Gosling in, but after Dempsey’s parry Nichols reacted quickly but inaccurately -- his first time shot being ballooned well over the bar.
Nichols’ speed of thought was evident again in the 40th minute. Dempsey dwelt too long on a back pass, and Nichols nicked the ball away. Just managing to keep the ball in play, his pull back made it easy for Keohane to side foot home for a 3-1 lead.
His confidence visibly boosted, Keohane’s jinking run extended the home defence who were happy to concede a corner. Then a free-kick 25 yards out on the right was beautifully struck by Gosling, but Dempsey saved acrobatically at the near post. Thus ended a very satisfactory first half for the City youngsters.
Just like in the first half, there was little to excite immediately after the interval, but this time the home side were more on the front foot. But just as in the first period, the first significant action resulted in a City goal. A fine move down the left on 56 minutes put Nichols in, and he created the space to deliver a perfect chipped cross onto Keohane’s head – 4-1 to City.
On the hour, the home side made four substitutions. Not long after this Keohane was close to a hat-trick but Dempsey made another fine save.
City’s first substitution came on 63 minutes, central defender Kamarl Duncan replacing midfielder Knowles. Moore-Taylor moved to left-back, releasing Frear to play further forward, while Gosling switched to the right, with Chamberlain more central.
With a further raft of substitutions -- three for each side – play became a little more fragmented. For City, Cane, Moore-Taylor and Nichols went off in the 74th minute, being replaced by Matthew Grimes at left-back, Luke Roper in midfield, and Jamie Micklewright alongside him.
Chippenham remained persistent and were rewarded with two more spot-kicks – on 80 minutes when Duncan handled a right wing cross, and nine minutes later when Tillson was adjudged to have handled another cross, a hotly disputed decision in this case.
Former Bristol Rovers player Dave Gilroy accepted both gifts to give the scoreline a much more respectable look for Chippenham. And it was difficult to begrudge them that.
As for City, it was good to see the youngsters trying to play the Exeter City way, with some particularly pleasing passing movements.
Jordan Moore-Taylor looked composed (and versatile) at the back, Aaron Dawson brought the ball forward with quality down the right, and while tackling night not be Elliott Frear’s forte, his pace was instrumental in thwarting several home attacks when he was at left back.
Jacob Cane and Ollie Knowles worked to good effect in midfield, while the left footed Jake Gosling bizarrely seems to work better from the right than the left. Elliott Chamberlain also had his moments.
Jimmy Keohane showed an aptitude for popping up in dangerous positions, while Tom Nichols again showed his true striker’s instinct. As well as scoring, he showed – just as he did when making his handful of first team appearances last season – that creating chances for others is also high on his agenda. For this correspondent, his was the outstanding City performance.