Exeter City’s under-18s kicked off their campaign in Merit League Two with a 1-1 draw away at Cheltenham Town under-18s on Saturday.
The Robins had the better of the play in the first period and came closest to a breakthrough courtesy of the danger of Alfie Taylor.
But despite all of Town’s pressure, after half-time, the Devonians broke the deadlock through Alfie Cunningham as the game ticked into the final 20 minutes.
But Cheltenham hit back quickly, and they levelled through Brad Burgess, meaning both teams began their fixtures in the second half of the season with a point apiece.
After both clubs saw their respective Academy sides finish in the bottom half of the Youth Alliance South West division, the opening round of Merit League Two saw the Westcountry rivals paired together for a round one contest at Seasons in Swindon Village.
Both sets of players may have had something to prove as they were looking to make the best possible start to this season’s Merit League competition, however, pre-match preparations for ECFC Lead Coach, Tom Donati and his young Grecians were severely hampered and disrupted the day’s proceedings.
The difficulties allowed the home team to make the stronger start, and after seven minutes, Robins forward, Ibby Olateju created the day’s first real opportunity, but Andrew Sowden, in his first game back since his concussion, smothered the Town attack with some brave goalkeeping.
The pressure continued to mount on the City goal, and just a few moments later, Adulai Sambu’s cross had the visitors’ backline scrambling once again.
Taylor saw a direct free-kick denied by another Sowden save, while further balls into the danger area put Exeter onto the backfoot.
The Devon outfit worked their way into the opening period, and their brightest moment came 11 minutes before half-time through Pedro Borges. The midfielder moved play forward and got himself into a promising position, but his shot flew over the bar.
Twice in as many minutes, Taylor looked to create something. Initially, the Cheltenham danger man saw an aerial effort whistle just past the post, before another Taylor set-piece tested Sowden.
With the last real chance of the half, Sowden’s agility kept matters goalless when a dangerous corner appeared to be goalbound, however, the Grecians goalie did magnificently well to claw it off the line.
Arguably, the hosts could, and should, have been clear of their opponents, and, shortly after the break, they came millimetres from breaking the deadlock once again when they counter-attacked quickly and clipped the post.
In reply, City won a free-kick 20-yards out a few moments later, but, Jude Franks comfortably kept out the set-play just before the hour mark.
The away side enjoyed their best spell of the match towards the midpoint of the second half. As Exeter’s players upped the ante, Franks produced a decent stop to turn away another Devonian effort, before the resulting corner was cleared.
As the game ticked into the final 20 minutes, both teams turned to their benches for some inspiration, and it proved to be Donati’s switch which paid dividends as the Grecians broke the deadlock shortly after.
With Cunningham now operating from a wider position, the playmaker picked the ball up from a loose ball following a cross into the area. Cunningham saw his first attempt repelled, but he reacted quickest to tuck home the rebound and hand City the lead.
That advantage, however, did not last for long. With an instant reply, the Robins won themselves a corner allowing them to flood the box with their taller players once again. As a result, Burgess’ shot proved to be too good for Sowden, and parity was restored to set up a grandstand finish.
Experienced duo, George Spencer and Mitch Beardmore were tasked with finding an Exeter winner, while up the other end, Town’s Tom King curled a strike just over.
Both sides enjoyed promising moments in the closing stages, and it was Cheltenham who perhaps came the closest to the day’s third goal when Taylor got forward to whip in a dangerous delivery, however, Freddy Wilcox squandered the opportunity.
That meant that when the full-time whistle sounded a few minutes later, the third close encounter between these two sides this season ended up in a draw, giving both sides lots to build upon for their remaining Merit League fixtures.
Exeter City’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Tom Donati: “Genuinely this was one of those games which we will quickly move on from. We had some mishaps in our preparations on the day, and Cheltenham, who had the upper hand for a lot of the game, could have easily been out of sight. To stay in the game was good, but everyone had an ‘off day’. No one was terrible, but no one was outstanding either. One thing that was pleasing for me is that our goal has come from another thing we’ve been working on in training.
“There were moments where we weren’t too disheartened at things going against us, but we failed to recognise those instances in the game and then failed to up our game in response. When we went a goal up we were quite comfortable, but we then panicked. We weren’t in control at any period, but were probably enjoying our best spell in the game at that point, but after we lost control and composure, which we’ve discussed with the lads and know we need to work on.
“There is so much within this group, and I see their ceiling a lot higher than perhaps the boys do themselves. I can see more potential than they do, but it is all about finding the right balance with our communication with the players, and training effectively enough for their progression.
“We play Southend United U18s away next which will be a totally different experience. It will be a longer journey, which means we will have an overnight stay on the Friday, so our preparation will be different. The travel, rooming with someone in a hotel, eating differently, all those things that you might experience on a matchday will all occur so it is a really good opportunity to learn about it all for the lads.
“Southend will be a different opponent, and coming from the South East someone who we don’t normally play and may offer something different. I know a little bit about them, and we may take a glimpse at them in our prep, but I want us to be more mindful about what we do, and focus on ourselves more.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Jacca Cavendish, Sam Joce, Scott Simmons, Liam Oakes, Tom Dean, Pedro Borges, Alfie Cunningham, Alfie Clark, Joe Wragg, Aaron Hale
Subs: Rafa Beadmean, Kye Cooper, Mitch Beardmore, George Spencer