Exeter City’s under-18s were knocked out of the Youth Alliance Cup at the first hurdle on penalties following a 3-3 draw with Milton Keynes Dons at the Cliff Hill Training Ground on Saturday.
A strong end to the first period saw the Grecians take a two-goal lead into half-time courtesy of a Theo Cutler brace, before a spirited Dons side produced a marvellous comeback.
Tommy Blennerhassett and Jediah Bombo brought the visitors back level, before Tom Dean thought he had won the tie for City when he finished off a lovely sweeping move.
But an injury-time header from MK captain, Charlie Waller, forced a shoot-out, and after the Buckinghamshire club converted all five of their attempts, they were the side who progressed in the tournament.
Kevin Nicholson and his young squad switched their focus on this season’s cup competition following an encouraging performance last week.
Exeter and Milton Keynes had faced one another previously back in 2017 when Dan Green’s team triumphed 1-0 thanks to a James Dodd strike.
This time around, the Devonians welcomed back Tavistock loanees, Aamir Daniels and Joe O’Connor back into their matchday squad, while goalkeeper, Lewis McNab, deputised for the absent Andrew Sowden in what looked a strong side.
But it was the Dons who began brighter, and they bossed the territory inside the opening stages, not allowing the home side to get out of their own half.
McNab produced an early save when he denied a low effort on five minutes, and the young shot-stopper was called upon once again moments later when he comfortably held a free-kick.
Pedro Borges headed the first Grecians effort over on nine minutes, however, that seemed to settle his teammates, and City skipper, Harrison King, stung the hands of the visiting ‘keeper with a long-range strike not long after.
Both sides traded efforts midway through the first half; Borges unable to guide his diving header goalwards following good work from trio Dean, Daniels and Alfie Cunningham, but in truth, clear-cut chances came at a premium despite some positive phases of play.
MK wasted another opportunity when they shot off target from 20-yards, however, just before the interval, the deadlock was finally broken following good wing play from King.
The full-back received the ball on the right side, before he drifted infield with a mazy run. His subsequent shot was parried away by Sebastien Stacey, but on the follow-up, Cutler pounced and tapped the rebound into an unguarded net despite the opposition's protests for offside.
A confident Cutler was beginning to cause havoc in the Milton Keynes backline, and deep into injury-time, the striker netted his fourth goal in two matches with a decisive finish. Good work from Daniels saw the Exeter number 11 clip a cross into the centre, which in turn saw the chasing defender slip over. Cutler raced onto the loose ball, before he composed himself and shot high past the goalie to make it 2-0.
After the break, Nicholson’s men created the first opening for substitute George Spencer, however, his cross-shot flashed across the face of goal.
Around the hour mark, both goalkeepers were called into action, firstly when Daniels curled an effort towards goal which was pushed away, before McNab made sure after a looping header seemed to connect with his left-hand post.
Two opportunities in as many minutes for the Devonians still failed to beat Stacey, but midway through the second period, the Dons could have been killed off when King found himself through on goal following a brilliant bit of anticipation.
After intercepting a square pass, King blitzed his way past the final defender with a strong run, to end up one-versus-one with the opponent's goalie. However, the home captain saw his low shot well stopped, before the follow-up was put behind for a corner.
The Grecians were made to regret that missed opportunity a few moments later as their opponents pulled a goal back. With a move down the left, Blennerhassett was able to steal in ahead of McNab to finish precisely, halving the deficit.
King came to his side’s rescue with a brave challenge on 77 minutes when a long ball ripped open a hole in the City defence, however, no one was able to stop a leveller going in just a minute later when Bombo tucked the ball home to make it 2-2 and set up a dramatic finish.
Spencer, who had looked lively in attack since his introduction, went close when his shot cannoned off the upright, while up the other end, the visitors shanked another shot from distance wide.
The contest, from about the 85th minute, had almost everything, and the thrilling finale started after Nicholson’s players won themselves a free-kick. Joe O’Connor floated a ball into the danger area, before King rose highest and thundered a header past Stacey, only to be denied by the linesman’s flag seconds later.
But while the celebrations were cut short there, they resumed not long after when Jacca Cavendish located Cutler with a pinpoint pass. The forward turned his man and powered his way to the byline, before a smart cutback found Dean, who arrowed a finish into the far corner to spark jubilant scenes for those in red and white.
The game’s flow up to that point had been disrupted by lots of drinks breaks and injury treatments, and therefore the officials were not afraid to add on plenty of time on top of the regulation 90.
After the clock had ticked into added time, Spencer found Stacey in good form to keep things at 3-2.
Eight minutes into the extra period, MK thought they equalised when a cross from the left flank avoided everyone in the centre. On hand was Bombo at the far stick, however, and he diverted the ball home, only for the other assistant referee to disallow the strike.
The Dons were not to be denied though, and in the 101st minute, they earned their reward with a third goal from a set-play. A deep corner found it’s way to Waller 12-yards out, and he sent a looping header into the top corner to break Exeter hearts.
The full-time whistle sounded not long after, and with the format of the competition forcing ties to be decided on the day of the game, the lottery of penalties was going to determine the winner of what was an epic contest.
The hosts, however, missed their first attempt, unfortunately, and despite scoring all of their subsequent kicks, Milton Keynes were faultless from 12-yards, and they triumphed in the shoot-out 5-4, to book their place in round two.
Exeter City’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Kevin Nicholson: “I thought we could have been a lot better than what we showed in the first half despite being 2-0 up. We were ok, but we could have scored more, and we missed that ruthlessness in front of goal.
“The biggest disappointment is the attitude we showed in the second half. When MK Dons had their spell, and they scored their first goal, which came out of nothing really, we started to turn on one another and started to get on at the referee.
“It is part of the players’ learning. I think coaches are quick to jump on defenders when you concede goals, but we have had 4 or 5 good chances. We have got to be clinical, and we are putting pressure on the lads to understand that.
“I am happy from a learning point of view because if we were more clinical, I feel we would have gone through quite comfortably. We are away at Cheltenham next, and that is another learning thing. We have got to bounce back. There is no point in dwelling on this. The players can only control what they’re in control of, and that is making sure they prepare well for Saturday.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Lewis McNab, Ed James, Scott Simmons, Jacca Cavendish, Harrison King, Aamir Daniels, Gabriel Billington, Tom Dean, Pedro Borges, Alfie Cunningham, Theo Cutler
Subs: Liam Oakes, Joe O’Connor, George Spencer