Exeter City’s under-18s began their Merit League campaign in fine style with a 4-0 victory over Gillingham at the Cliff Hill Training Ground.
A talented Kent side perhaps started the better, but during a decent spell for the Grecians just before half-time, they struck twice in as many minutes through defenders Josh Hancock and Jordan Dyer.
The hosts remained in control during the early second-half minutes, and they utilised their dominance by adding a third when Sparkes scored the best goal of the game.
Midway through the second period, City sealed the victory when Lucas White finished off a swift counter-attack, giving Dan Green’s men a well-earned three points after the opening round of Merit League fixtures.
Having secured the Youth Alliance South West division title just weeks before, the Devon club were hoping to take some of that momentum into their first match of what will be undoubtedly a tough Merit League campaign.
Round one of the fixture list, pitted Exeter against a strong Gillingham team who finished fourth in their South East final league standings.
The Gills came the closest to scoring the first goal of the game when they attacked down their right flank, before crossing the ball which was initially dealt with. However, it was the follow-up effort that created more of a threat, but some resolute defending from the home side averted the danger and kept the scoreline goalless.
The Grecians grew into the contest, but it wasn’t until the 40th minute when the deadlock was actually broken.
The hosts floated a corner into the penalty box, and a clearance from the away side fell to Harry Kite. The midfielder spun and sent the ball back into the danger area before Hancock headed the ball home to make it 1-0.
The ability to keep the ball alive during that situation helped the arrival of the first goal, and just minutes later, in similar circumstances, City were able to double their advantage to put themselves well in command.
Following a set-piece routine from Green’s team, a rushed clearance meant that the ball was able to picked up by Sparkes. His centre was met by Dyer, and the centre-back finished past the Kent goalkeeper to score his team’s second goal of the game.
Half-time didn’t stop any momentum the Devon club had, and they quickly established themselves a three-goal lead early on in the second period.
After applying pressure on their opponents high up the pitch, Exeter regained possession in the Gillingham half. Josh Williams fed Sparkes, before the forward cut inside and bent the ball into the top corner.
The third goal from the home side prompted a reaction from the visitors. They saw a number of chances go close, whilst their best effort was saved well by Felix Norman in the Grecians’ goal.
On 65 minutes, the hosts wrapped up the win by netting their fourth of the afternoon. Following a Gills’ corner, City broke quickly. The ball was taken into midfield by James Dodd, who set up White, who converted the slick move to put the result beyond all doubt.
Green’s men stayed strong and resolute during the final 25 minutes, repelling all attacks from the away side, meaning they were able to keep a clean sheet, as well as prove their potency in attack, with a decent 4-0 win in their first match of Merit League One.
Exeter City under-18s coach, Dan Green: “It was a good day all round. I would say we worked hard and we were competitive. The scoreline sounds like we ran away with it but we had to dig deep at times during the match.
“The pitch was not perfect. The conditions made it one of those afternoons where we had to stick together and work for one another. Our resilience saw us dominate moments, and how the team rallied together was good to see.
“They were a good team, and were quite competitive. They kept breaking our play up with fouls so we had to keep our composure. Jack Sparkes was fouled a number of times but he showed his maturity by playing on and responded in the best possible way with a goal and an assist.
“It was definitely a team performance. I was really pleased to see the players play well, and be rewarded for their efforts. We travel to Luton next for another tough fixture, but if the boys can stick together, then they will do well. It was a positive performance backed up with a positive result on Saturday, and hopefully we can continue that with our next game.”
Exeter City under-18s: Felix Norman, Joe Belston, Jordan Dyer, Josh Hancock, Joe O’Loughlin, Will Dean, Harry Kite, Josh Williams, James Dodd, Jack Sparkes, Lucas White. Subs not used: Lewis Williams, Jack Stafford, Louis Morison, Lewis Wilson