Exeter City’s Under-18s recorded their first win of the season with a convincing 4-1 victory over Swindon Town U18s at the Cliff Hill Training Ground on Saturday.
Alfie Cunningham broke the deadlock just before the break, before Theo Cutler finished off a free-flowing move in the 54th minute to double the Grecians' advantage.
Cutler added his second for 3-0, and despite the away side pulling a goal back with 15 minutes remaining, Tom Dean sealed the points for his team with a wonderful solo effort late on.
Despite the positives from last week’s opening day defeat to AFC Bournemouth U18s, ECFC’s U18s Lead Coach, Kevin Nicholson, was hoping to see another step forward from his players in what was another tough test on paper.
Nicholson welcomed back Ed James and Alfie Clark into his starting XI, while Cutler earned his first start with a place in attack alongside the dangerous Mitch Beardmore.
But it was the Robins, who were playing in their first competitive match of the season, who showed no signs of rustiness early on when an attack down the right led to a shot for their striker, however, Andrew Sowden made a comfortable save.
Following the early scare, City found their rhythm 10 minutes in, and their first effort on goal came via the head of James, but he was unable to beat the Swindon goalkeeper.
The hosts’ progress was halted somewhat however when Clark was forced off with a knock, which saw Beardmore switch position and Pedro Borges introduced earlier than expected. Shots from Dean and Alfie Cunningham, however, still highlighted Exeter were on top during the opening quarter.
However, their opponents enjoyed a productive spell not long after; Sowden had to be alert to tip one shot around the post, while three more strikes in the space of as many minutes also came close to opening the scoring.
In the 29th minute, Dean came the closest to a breakthrough when he tried his luck from a free-kick 20-yards out. The cultured midfielder bent a superb attempt over the wall, but, the ball clattered the crossbar and bounced on the line, before the danger was averted.
Four minutes before the interval though, the Devonians did net courtesy of some quick reactions from their players out of possession. With Town looking to build from deep, a misguided ball out of defence was cut out by an alert Cutler. The forward’s square pass was collected by Cunningham, who danced his way into a shooting position, before he rolled the ball into the back of the net despite the goalie’s best efforts.
With the sun beating down onto the pitch on another hot day, tempers soared at the end of the first period when the two sets of players clashed following a robust challenge in the middle third. As a result, the referee issued several bookings, before the teams used the half-time break as a chance to regather themselves ahead of another intense half.
Sowden tipped over the first chance after the restart, but that proved to just be a small glimmer of positivity for the visitors, as the Grecians began to command the middle of the pitch.
Nicholson’s men were rewarded for their supremacy just nine minutes into the second 45 when a lovely move resulted in them doubling their advantage. Sam Joce’s long diagonal was collected by Beardmore, whose first touch allowed him to stride away from the chasing defender. The resulting low cross located Cutler, who guided the ball into the bottom corner, which led to a huge cheer from the City supporters watching on.
The hosts really kicked on from there, and both Borges, and Cutler, came close to adding to the scoreline near the hour mark.
The goalscoring chances were coming thick and fast, and from a variety of methods. Cutler saw a one v one opportunity denied by a decent save, while moments after, Scott Simmons perhaps should have converted Beardmore’s wicked corner.
At the midpoint of the second half, the Robins squandered their best opening when a low strike was denied by a good stop from Sowden.
Just a few minutes later, Swindon were made to rue that chance as it became a three-goal game. Borges, industrious since his introduction, won the ball back in the middle before slipping a pass through to Cutler. The attacker kept his composure and tucked his shot home to extend his side’s cushion.
Town finally had something to shout about after 75 minutes when a nicely worked move from left to right saw one winger smash the ball beyond Sowden to pull a goal back for his team.
But ultimately, particularly in the second half, the Wiltshire outfit had been outplayed, and the score became 4-1 in just the next attack through, arguably, the goal of the game.
Good work from replacement Liam Oakes saw him move play into the attacking third before he linked up with Dean. The midfielder then cut inside from the right, beating several players with some neat footwork, before he found himself inside the 18-yard box with the goal at his mercy. Dean powered the ball past the helpless Robins ‘keeper to grab the goal his performance more than deserved.
While the away team tried to muster some sort of response, Exeter remained in control, and as the clock ticked into injury time, they in fact could have scored another thanks to one more clear-cut chance.
Cutler received the ball on the left side of the box, before he enticed the defender to slide in and foul him. The number 9 picked himself and looked to complete his hat trick, but his spot-kick was parried away, and it remained 4-1.
However, that was about as low as it got for Nicholson and his players, who have jumped up to third in the Youth Alliance South West divisional standings following their impressive performance and well-deserved three points here.
Exeter City’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Kevin Nicholson: “It’s a funny game because you are always wanting more, but we have left the boys to enjoy this result and scoreline, but in reality, we could have scored six or seven goals. The chances we created were well-worked, and we played some really good stuff, while limiting their chances. A criticism I’ve got is, when we did concede, we started playing long from goal kicks, when we had been successful in playing out from the back before that. The statistics will tell you when you go long from goal kicks, you spend more time running back towards your own goal. My challenge for the players now is to keep a clean sheet as that would be nice to have and something they should take pride in, and to be more ruthless in front of goal, because if we want to be more successful, if, and when, we get those kinds of chances, we’ve got to take them.
“The message at half-time was to continue doing the good stuff but to raise it 5%. We’ve got a lot of players who just want to get on the ball, and sometimes they have to be a bit more selfless and wait for the moment to get into positions and ask for it. They have got to trust one another. I thought Theo Cutler did a great job of running in behind, and Mitch Beardmore, who started up top but then had to switch to wing-back, was excellent and created chances. That was the best game I’ve seen Tom Dean play, and he did wait for his moments and was effective with the ball and fully deserved his goal.
“[With some of the senior players ending the game not on the pitch], I think it shows the Under-16s and first-years will be given opportunities. Harrison King had to come off with a cut on his head, but Liam Oakes came on and did well. Alfie Clark looked to have jarred his knee but that allowed Pedro Borges to come in. We know we’ve got some good players, and it is great to have depth. It is good for the club and the Academy.
“We are always asking the boys to try and play. Although they conceded, that didn’t bother them, and it didn’t take long for them to go up the other end and score our fourth. The big positive is they reacted well.
“We play MK Dons in the Youth Alliance Cup next. I’m rather new to the Under-18s world, so I don’t really know what is coming next for us. But that allows us to focus on ourselves. We may get footage in and find some things to work on, but it’ll mainly be about trying to build on what we’ve done here. To try and carry on that momentum and keep on moving forward.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Ed James, Sam Joce, Jacca Cavendish, Harrison King, Alfie Clark, Gabriel Billington, Tom Dean, Alfie Cunningham, Theo Cutler, Mitch Beardmore
Subs: Liam Oakes, Scott Simmons, Pedro Borges