Exeter City under-18s returned to competitive football last weekend as they suffered a 2-0 home defeat to table-toppers Oxford United in the latest round of Youth Alliance league fixtures.
In a game of few clear-cut chances, the Grecians squandered the best two openings in a competitive first half through Jay Stansfield and Lewis Wilson.
United benefitted from a bright spell after the interval, taking the lead on 46 minutes with a header from a corner and, despite some Exeter pressure, the visitors then wrapped the game up late on with a goal.
Having enjoyed a two-week break from youth alliance action, Gribble’s men took to the pitch at the Cliff Hill training ground with the ambition of continuing their good sequence of results in recent times.
However, runaway league leaders, Oxford, arrived with the hope of spoiling things as they continued their resurgence following their only defeat in the league back in mid-October.
During a scrappy, but even opening 15 minutes, both teams looked to figure out how to break down one another when they got on the ball.
After 30 minutes, City’s youngsters created the first big chance. After some good work from Max Clark on the left wing, the ball reached the midfield area, allowing James Dodd to slide a neat pass into the path of Stansfield. The forward timed his run well and sprinted onto it, but he just overran the ball, which allowed the Oxford goalkeeper to stop the attack.
Moments later, Stansfield’s teammates carved open another opportunity, which was again denied by the keeper. Following some smart build-up play, Joe Belsten whipped in a dangerous ball from the right, but Wilson was beaten to the ball by the away side’s shot- stopper before it was cleared away to safety.
It meant, with neither chance taken, the two sets of players went in level at half-time.
However just a minute after the restart, the deadlock was broken. The Grecians’ defence failed to clear a ball into the box, leading to Felix Norman tipping a shot away for a corner. From the resulting set-piece, the visitors crossed towards the near post, where one Oxford player ran free of his marker to send a good header past the City keeper and into the net.
The goal may have come against the run of play, but it started a bright 10-minute spell for United. With a lot of the attacking play coming from the away team, waves of pressure came onto the Exeter goal as they struggled to get out of their defensive third.
However, the Devonians battled through it, and they kept the score at 1-0 as they grew in confidence and began to have a positive period themselves.
On the hour mark, Louis Morison threaded a through pass to Wilson. The striker showed tremendous pace to beat the defence to the ball, but the United shot-stopper saved well from Wilson to keep his clean sheet intact.
Gribble’s men continued to come forward looking for a leveller and Dodd grazed the top of the crossbar when he shot from the edge of the box.
With substitutions made and more men thrown forward, the hosts did everything to create another clear-cut chance. The second goal of the game however came at the other end in the dying minutes.
Following a long pass from the away side, one United player was able to pull the ball back into a dangerous area, and on hand, one of his teammates swept home to take the game away from City, and keep the league leaders top of the standings, whilst Gribble and his players will certainly take plenty away from a competitive match against one of the stronger outfits of the division.
Exeter City under-18s coach, Chad Gribble, said: “Despite the result, there were a lot of positives to come from the game. We haven’t played for a week and the boys’ reaction was superb. On another day, if we took our chances it would have been a different game.
“We came against a team who are top of the league and have only lost once all season. They were tough to break down, but I thought we had a really good first half, and I was pleased with how the plan was working.
“The first goal was a real suckerpunch. It came from a set piece which was disappointing, as generally we have been good at defending them this season. I feel we didn’t quite do enough at the top end of the pitch. We had more of the ball but we didn’t make the most of that.
“In large parts, with the young side we had out, I thought we showed we could compete well with them. It was a good performance. We have a group of players that keep coming back. Every time we suffer a setback, we come back strong. We have trained really well this week and I have no doubt that we will give ourselves the best chance of getting a result next time out.”
Exeter City under-18s: Felix Norman, Jordan Dyer, Cheick Diabate, Louis Morison, Joe Belsten, Max Clark, Will Dean, Charlie Lawrence, James Dodd, Jay Stansfield, Lewis Wilson. Subs not used: Jack Arthur, Alex Moyse, Theo Simpson, Nelson Ideguan, Jack Stafford