Exeter City’s under-18s grabbed a well-deserved victory against top of the league Portsmouth in a high scoring affair at the Cliff Hill Training Ground on Saturday.
That win extends the Devon club’s impressive run, with Chad Gribble’s men picking up 12 points from their last five matches to bring them closer to the top end of the league standings.
Portsmouth took the lead when, on eight minutes, Max Clark’s overhit pass was picked up by one visiting forward before he found himself one against one with goalkeeper Jack Arthur. The striker kept his cool and took full advantage of the slip up to hand his team an early lead.
The response from the home team was good, and from the resulting kick-off, Lewis Wilson was able to win possession back high up the pitch. Lovett fed the ball into Ford, and on the turn, the winger arrowed a shot inside the far post to restore parity.
On 15 minutes, Exeter went ahead thanks to some individual brilliance from Lovett. After receiving the ball on the right flank, his mazy run saw him skip away from two defenders before he burst into the penalty area and found the far corner with a neat effort to make it 2-1.
Despite the fast start, both teams continued to trade chances in what was an open affair. The Portsmouth equaliser arrived in the 33rd minute when the ball was cushioned back for a long-range strike. A clean connection saw the ball fly past an unsighted Arthur to draw the teams level.
It was only 2-2 for a few minutes, as the Hampshire outfit took the lead once again moments later. After a poor clearance by Louis Morison, the league leaders worked the ball into their frontman, who turned sharply and finished well to score his side’s third goal of the afternoon.
It stayed at 3-2 for the remainder of the first half, however, after the break, the game seemed to settle down with the Grecians starting to see more of the ball and gain a bit of control.
The hosts continued to look threatening in the final third, with Wilson unfortunate to see his shot from the left side blocked, whilst Lovett again looked dangerous every time he surged forward.
The Devonians added their third goal on 68 minutes when Nelson Iseguan pressurised the opposition high up the pitch. After retrieving the ball, Gribble’s men worked the ball along the edge of the penalty box before Lovett’s cross located Ford, and he headed home to make it three goals apiece.
With the match in the balance, City remained in control of proceedings as they enjoyed plenty of the ball. Without the ball, the home side did well to restrict their opponents to very little, and it looked like with the ascendency, it would be the Exeter youngsters who would net the seventh goal of the afternoon.
In the 80th minute, the Grecians did retake the lead when Lovett doubled his own tally. After starting the move from Arthur back in goal, play came through Alfie Pond and Morison, before the latter sent a long delivery in behind the scampering full-back to Lovett. The forward took the ball in his stride and finished well to make it 4-3.
That goal meant the away team had to commit more men forward during the remaining 10 minutes. With more spaces now appearing in the Pompey defence, the Grecians looked to fully exploit them.
As the contest reached its climax, Ford grabbed the winning goal to secure the three points for his side. Jack Stafford’s clearance saw the playmaker run onto the ball in a threatening position. With the Hampshire goalkeeper left stranded as the ball bounced over him as he tried to meet the ball, Ford was left to race clear and tap home his hattrick goal, and complete the scoring of what was an eventful afternoon.
Exeter City's under-18s coach, Chad Gribble, said: “We are all delighted with the result, as well as large parts of the performance. To score 10 goals in our two matches against the team who were top of the league is great. It was exciting for those watching it, but not so much for the coaches on the sidelines. The players showed great belief, and not once did I look at our players and think we were beaten.
“We looked a threat every time we went forward. It was a day where it looked like we were always going to create plenty of chances, but unfortunately, it also looked like we were going to concede. What is pleasing is to see us get the territory we did get against them and the way we scored the goals that we did. We’ve had two tough games against Portsmouth, so credit has to go to the boys for managing to get the result here.
“I look back at the previous match against them, and the fact we managed to score five goals away at their place and not get anything is beyond belief. But as a result of that, we knew we could create chances here, and the key thing was whether we would defend well enough against a good side. The first half looked like that might not happen but that was down to the quality we were up against.
“We’ve said it to the players, that we are taking things on a game-by-game basis. We are developing every game, and comparing us to when we last played Portsmouth, you could see signs that we have made a step forward. We are on a good little run at the moment but we aren’t getting carried away. It was a fantastic collective performance, particularly in the second half, and credit has to go to the boys for believing at half-time that they would go out and score again.
“Frank Lovett looked a threat all game, whilst Harry Ford was excellent throughout. I’ve not seen Lewis Wilson work so hard in a game, and he showed he can still have a positive impact on the team without scoring himself, whilst Louis Morison showed his most mature performance as captain.
“The second round of the FA Youth is up next, where we travel to Ipswich Town this weekend. The players are excited to play at a big stadium and to go to a team who are a higher Academy category than us. It is a brilliant opportunity for us to showcase our talents, and there is no reason why we can’t spring an upset after what has been some very exciting performances recently.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Jack Arthur, Jack Veale, Jack Stafford, Alfie Pond, Max Clarke, Louis Morison, Alex Moyse, Nelson Iseguan, Harry Ford, Frank Lovett, Lewis Wilson. Subs: Ellis Johnson, Harry Lee, Zeph Collins, Jamie Nicholson, Rhys Fuller