Exeter City’s under-18s finished their season off in style with a 4-0 victory on Saturday against Swindon Town in the final game of Merit League One.
The result means City are still top of the Merit League standings on goal difference, but Gillingham need just a point in their final game of the season on Friday to claim the title.
After some earlier warning signs, the Grecians eventually took the lead through Will Dean’s 38th-minute penalty, before the midfielder netted again with a long-range effort just moments later.
Swindon showed more attacking intent in the second half, but Harry Gardner increased the home side’s advantage late on, before an injury-time fourth goal from the Devon outfit, courtesy of Nelson Iseguan, rounded off the great performance from City’s youngsters.
The Robins, who finished in third position in the Youth Alliance South West division this season, looked to cause Exeter problems with their direct play.
However, most of the early signs looked better for the Grecians. Jack Sparkes headed a third-minute chance wide, but for most of the opening quarter of an hour, the two teams were trying to get a rhythm going and spot any weaknesses in their opponents.
Gardner had a low shot saved in the 16th minute, and not long after, the Devon side created another neat opening when Joe O’Loughlin’s cross just evaded a finishing touch from a home player.
The away team worked their way into the contest, and were perhaps unlucky to take the lead just after the midway point of the first period when they hit the post from a curling effort after some effective switches of play.
However most of the momentum stayed with Green’s men, and after O’Loughlin dragged a shot wide and Sparkes twice went close, it looked a matter of time before they would break the deadlock.
Town forced City goalkeeper, Lewis Williams, into a good save, but just three minutes later, the hosts scored their first of the afternoon.
James Dodd provided a superb reverse pass into the path of Sparkes, who saw his shot smartly saved. The rebound looped up into the air, and with Sparkes under the ball, the striker was bundled over by the opposition's defence forcing the referee to hand Exeter a spot-kick.
Dean’s penalty was smartly despatched and the Grecians deservedly led 1-0 after 38 minutes.
Two minutes later, the scoreline changed again. After working the ball in from the left, the home side’s neat passing gave Dean enough space to fire at goal from distance. The power on the midfielder’s strike beat the visitors’ goalkeeper, before nestling into the back of the net to hand the Devon club a two-goal cushion when they went into the break.
As expected, the Robins responded well after the interval, with the next goal crucial towards the outcome of the match. The two earliest second-half chances fell their way, but a combination of good defending and wayward shooting meant the scoreline stayed the same.
City’s attacking duo of Dodd and Sparkes linked up again on 55 minutes, and the latter was desperately unlucky to see his effort tipped onto the post.
With Green’s men continually applying pressure on the Swindon goal, both Dean and Josh Hancock forced the visiting goalkeeper into two decent saves.
However, as the clock ticked past the 70-minute mark, it was the away side who were pressing the more aggressively in the search for the next goal.
Town fired one shot wide, whilst Williams pulled off two stops to maintain his clean sheet and frustrate his opponents.
Iseguan and Cheick Diabate were introduced from the substitutes’ bench for the hosts, and they both added energy and purpose to the Exeter attack.
The changes proved to be a masterstroke, as it was Iseguan who played a key part in helping his side grab their third of the afternoon in the 89th minute.
Following Williams’ long kick, Gardner found Iseguan with a header to put him through on goal. The replacement lifted the ball over the scrambling goalkeeper, but the ball went loose after the initial lob failed to reach the goal. Gardner picked up the rebound and slotted home to kill off any hopes of a comeback from the visitors.
The emphatic win was completed in injury time two minutes later. Gardner cleared from deep inside his own half, which Iseguan latched onto in the middle of the pitch. The substitute then took advantage of a miscommunication between the Robins’ defence and goalkeeper to poke it from them, and tap the ball into an empty net to seal a hard-fought and well deserved victory.
Exeter City under-18s coach, Dan Green, said: “I thought it was a good way to end the season. The game encapsulated why the players have been so good this year.
“We’ve had some tough games this year, and Saturday was no different. There was a moment when all eleven players were working back and defending a Swindon counter-attack despite us being 3-0 up. Then off the back of that, we scored our fourth. It provided a fantastic example to the younger players of what makes a successful player.
“Josh Hancock was excellent dealing with their direct play, whilst Will Dean was fantastic. He covered the ground well, defended and attacked, and I was pleased he got his two goals. But overall it was a good team performance, and it was the type of performance that you can score four goals off the back of.
“The result was a nice way for the players to finish, and I’m really pleased with the way the team worked and committed themselves. I hope the players recognise the fundamental reasons they’ve been successful this season and continue to do so in the future.”
Exeter City under-18s: Lewis Williams, Joe Belston, Jordan Dyer, Josh Hancock, Jack Stafford, Joe O’Loughlin, Will Dean, Louis Morison, Harry Gardner, James Dodd, Jack Sparkes. Subs: Cheick Diabate, Nelson Iseguan
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