Exeter City’s under-18s lost a dramatic penalty shoot-out last Saturday to bow out to the hands of Oxford United at the semi-final stage of the Southern Area Youth Alliance Cup.
Spot-kicks were needed to separate the teams after the two sides played out a six-goal thriller at the Cliff Hill training ground.
The Devon outfit looked to use their passing game to control the proceedings early on, and after just two minutes they thought they were a goal ahead.
Joel Randall tested the United goalkeeper with a fearsome strike, and whilst it was parried away by the custodian, Jack Sparkes reacted first to the loose ball to tuck the rebound home. Celebrations were cut short though, as the assistant referee had flagged the Grecians striker offside from the initial shot.
After 12 minutes, Exeter did manage to score the opening goal. James Dodd was industrious in midfield, before he slid a pass to Sparkes. The forward coolly converted his chance to give Green’s side the early initiative.
City looked good for their lead, and they continued to create chances to extend their advantage, but on 25 minutes a mix-up in amongst the home defence allowed the away team to level the scores.
A ball over the top of the Devon club’s backline caused confusion, and with the Oxford player sharp and alert, he equalised with his side’s first real opening.
Then nine minutes after half-time, the Yellows completed the turnaround. Following a throw-in, a neat cut-back found the onrushing attacker, who converted from seven yards to give the visitors a 2-1 lead.
On the hour mark, United netted their third goal of the match to put themselves in a great position to progress to the final. The U’s broke quickly as the Grecians failed to clear their lines. The ball eventually found its way to the edge of the box, where the away side’s forward wriggled free of a number of challenges, before firing a shot into the bottom corner.
That goal prompted changes in personnel from the hosts. White was brought on to add a new dimension to the Exeter attack, and not long after his introduction, he sparked a revival from his team with a goal on 75 minutes.
Sparkes attacked down the right flank, before his cross was met by White, who scored from close range to reduce the deficit and restore belief.
Five minutes later, the comeback was complete. Fellow City substitute, Joe O’Loughlin provided a teasing cross from his wing. At the far post stood Key, who showed real desire to get to the ball first to send the ball over the line to level the scores.
With the momentum swung in favour of the home side, they went in search of a seventh goal of the game, and a potential winner. Randall came agonisingly close to finding it, but the full-time whistle sounded with the score at three goals apiece.
It meant a penalty shoot-out was required to separate the two sides after a pulsating and entertaining match.
Both teams converted their first two kicks, and with Lewis Williams able to save the visitors’ third attempt. However, with White unfortunately squandering his kick, the scores were still level after three penalties each.
Both sets of players continued to convert their respective kicks all the way through to the goalkeepers, when eventually the winner was decided. Oxford’s shot-stopper buried his shot, but Williams struck the crossbar with his effort, resulting in the Yellows progressing to the final of the Southern Area Youth Alliance Cup.
Exeter City under-18s coach, Dan Green, said: “We are bitterly disappointed to go out of the cup, but there were positives in the performance that we can take with us for the rest of the season.
“We started really well and our biggest frustration would be in not capitalising on the good opportunities we created. We worked incredibly hard to get back into the game from 3-1 down and should have won the game in the final moments.
“Credit to Oxford, they held their nerve in the shootout and we wish them the best of luck for the final. We now have the Merit League to focus on and aim to finish as high as possible.”
Exeter City under-18s: Lewis Williams, Sam Haynes, Jordan Dyer, Will Dean, Josh Hancock, Mitch Thomas, Harry Kite, Joel Randall, James Dodd, Josh Key, Jack Sparkes. Subs: Felix Norman, Joe Belston, Joe O’Loughlin, Josh Williams, Lucas White