Exeter City’s Under-18s suffered their first loss of Merit League Two courtesy of a 3-2 home defeat to Northampton Town under-18s on Saturday.
Despite dominating for long periods in the first half, the Grecians fell behind to a Neo Dobson penalty, however, they levelled with a superb team goal finished off by Alfie Clark.
But a fast start to the second 45 had the Cobblers in the ascendency, and strikes from Peter Abimbola, as well as Dobson’s second of the afternoon, handed Town a two-goal cushion.
Theo Cutler halved the deficit with a quarter of an hour remaining, but the Devonians were unable to find a leveller, meaning Exeter’s youngsters are still searching for their first Merit League victory this season.
Despite coming into Saturday off the back of a frustrating draw with Southend United U18s, Tom Donati’s young squad appeared to be in high spirits, which was typified by their controlling possession game from the outset.
With a drizzle lashing down onto a greasy pitch, City handled the conditions well, and after eight minutes, Alfie Cunningham shot just off target to begin a prominent attacking spell for the hosts.
Just a few moments later, Northampton goalkeeper, Marcus Bald, was called into action when the Grecians advanced down the left flank through Kye Cooper and Liam Oakes. An inside pass found Clark, and his layoff to Mitch Beardmore invited the playmaker to shoot from the edge of the box, however, Beardmore’s effort was well stopped by Bald.
Exeter continued to dominate the key areas, with both Beardmore and Tom Dean seeing strikes go close. Meanwhile, up the other end, all that the visitors could do was bundle an attempt from a corner wide.
At the midpoint of the first period, Donati’s side wanted a penalty when Clark felt he was tugged back by his marker, but the referee waved play on.
While most sides may have been frustrated with the officiating, the Devon outfit continued to play with a swagger, and just a minute later, Jake Richards tried his luck from 20 yards, but Bald again produced a smart stop to deny the City midfielder.
The home side cranked up the pressure, and after 26 minutes, they should have scored following good work from Cooper and Clark. The ball was moved on to Beardmore, who dribbled past his man before aiming for the bottom corner, however, his effort whistled just past the post.
The Grecians were made to pay for their missed opportunities with the game’s next flashpoint, as the Cobblers countered quickly. A nice interchange between Town’s attacking duo saw one of them floored by a trip, leaving the man in the middle with no choice but to award the spot-kick. Dobson stepped up and converted his kick from 12 yards to hand Northampton a shock lead.
Exeter’s young guns blocked that setback from their mindset however and produced an impressive response.
Almost straight from kick-off, Donati’s men put together a nice passage of play down the left side once again involving Cooper and Oakes. After the initial cross came to nothing, the attack was kept alive, and the ball was moved back out wide where Oakes remained. The full-back dashed past his opposite man to get to the byline, and his low cross located Clark’s near post run, and the striker caressed the ball past the goalkeeper to restore parity.
The visitors looked for ways to restore their goal advantage in the lead-up to the interval. Sam Joce’s brave block deflected one shot out for a corner, while speculative efforts from the Cobblers in the final few minutes of the half never troubled Andrew Sowden in the Devon club’s goal.
But those signs of a shift in momentum continued after the break, as the Town coaching staff made personnel changes to help their team get on the front foot.
One minute after the restart, a swift break from Northampton saw Dobson sent through one-v-one with Sowden, however, the City goalkeeper stayed big and kept the scores level with a crucial stop with his feet. A minute later Dobson was causing more trouble for the hosts’ defence, but the resulting effort went off target.
The Grecians had a little respite through Dean’s free-kick attempt, but in truth, it was primarily one-way traffic, and in the 53rd minute, the visitors retook the lead.
A free-kick from out wide on the right was floated towards the danger zone, before Cobblers’ defender, Peter Abimbola, climbed highest to power a header into the top corner to make it 2-1.
That forward pressure kept coming onto the Exeter goal, and Dobson saw another chance kept out by Sowden, while the striker’s teammate also shanked an effort just past the post.
On the hour mark though, the lead was doubled courtesy of some poor ball retention. Town quickly seized upon a miscontrol in midfield, before play was quickly moved on to Dobson. With the home defence still recovering, the attacker took his shot early, catching Sowden out, and the ball curled inside the far post for 3-1 much to the frustration of everyone in red and white.
Donati turned to his bench for a reaction, and Aamir Daniels and Rafa Beadman were introduced to help try and get their side back into the contest.
The Devon outfit halved the deficit on 74 minutes thanks to a renewed impetus in their attacking play. Play came to Daniels on the left side, before the replacement sent in a deep cross into the danger zone. The ball was recycled by Beardmore, who picked out Cunningham with a precise pass. Cunningham’s scuffed shot bounced kindly for Cutler in front of goal, and the poacher swivelled and smashed the ball in from close-range to set up a thrilling finale.
ECFC Under-15, Rohullah Mohammadi, came off the bench for the final 14 minutes to add some spark in the middle, but it was Cunningham who came agonisingly close to an equaliser moments later when Dean picked out the Exeter number 10, but his volley was miscued and gathered easily by Northampton’s substitute goalkeeper.
City tried to up the ante in the closing stages, with numerous surges down the wings causing havoc to the opposition backline, but ultimately the final pass was just lacking. But, for all of their efforts, the Grecians almost snatched a dramatic equaliser with a few minutes remaining when, once again, they got in behind the away defence down the wing.
Daniels stood up a cross, which the goalkeeper flicked away, however, Clark reacted quickest to nod the ball across to Mohammadi, who, on the stretch, could only flash a strike across goal to leave everyone with their hands on their heads.
Just a few moments later the referee blew for full-time, securing another win for the Cobblers, while Exeter’s youngsters were left thinking what might have been for the second week in a row.
Exeter City’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Tom Donati: “From my point of view, I thought we created enough chances, particularly in the first half, to be out of sight. It ended up being similar to the Southend match, and it is quite tough being on the receiving end of a defeat here.
“The manner of the goals we conceded was a little disappointing. The penalty, the second one we have conceded in two games, came when we were perhaps a little naive, and then another second set-piece goal. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but it was like the week before, and is clearly another thing we need to improve on.
“In fairness, the pitch held up much better than I thought it would, so I have to give some praise to the ground staff for that. Their style really caught us unaware, even though we had prepped for it. It was interesting to see, and there were some good learning opportunities for the players here, but sometimes, they have to learn from all of that in-game rather than afterwards.
“Both our goals I think are a better reflection of how we want to play. The second goal, even though it was a bit scrappy in the finish, the build-up was very good, and more like how an Exeter City team should look like. Another positive I saw was the reaction we gave to going 1-0 down. We were on top at that point, but the penalty was a real sucker-punch. But we responded well and bit straight back. We showed good character going up the other end and scoring.
“Our next game is against Newport County U18s at home. We’ve played them a few times this season, including my first match with the boys where we weren’t great. Saturday will give us a good reflection and good marker in that sense to see where we were back then to where we are now.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Jacca Cavendish, Sam Joce, Liam Oakes, Tom Dean, Jake Richards, Alfie Cunningham, Mitch Beardmore, Alfie Clark, Theo Cutler, Kye Cooper
Subs: Rafa Beadman, Aamir Daniels, Rohullah Mohammadi