Exeter City’s under-18s secured their second consecutive draw in the Merit League Two with a 2-2 scoreline away at Southend United on Saturday.
Alfie Cunningham’s penalty broke the deadlock early on, before Santino Ohanaka doubled the Grecians’ lead after he was played in by Alfie Clark.
But a Max Fiddes spot-kick just before half-time restored belief in the United side, and they levelled the scores in the 81st minute when Louis Bragg netted from a set-piece.
The point in Essex left City’s youngsters frustrated they were unable to record their first victory in this season’s newest competition, however, following their unbeaten start, the Devonians sit nicely in mid-table ahead of their first home fixture this coming weekend.
ECFC’s U18s Lead Coach, Tom Donati, took his young squad eastwards as Exeter’s Academy side tested themselves against a team from the nation’s South East region for the first time this season.
But, despite the long journey, the visitors began the game on the front foot and created a decent opportunity just a few minutes in, however, the resulting effort flashed across the face of the Southend goal.
Mescal Olabyi cleared away a 14th-minute cross from underneath the Shrimpers’ crossbar, however, the pressure from the Grecians continued to come, and after a quarter of an hour, they deservedly broke the deadlock.
Some neat build-up play saw Cunningham dart his way into the 18-yard box, with Clark square of him ready for a tap-in. But the former was floored by home defender, Joe Poxon, and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Cunningham dusted himself off and struck home his attempt to open the scoring and reward his team’s strong start in the best possible way.
With a real swagger and confidence, the City attacks continued to amass onto the United goal. On 20 minutes, the Devon outfit doubled their tally when Clark picked up possession in a dangerous position. The forward slipped a precise through ball behind the opposition defence and into the path of Ohanaka, who coolly dispatched the chance to make it 2-0.
Southend tried to muster a response, and at the midpoint of the first period, they created their best opening, but Fiddes’ powerful header was well stopped by Dylan Shanahan in the Exeter goal.
Up the other end, Donati’s men continued to look dangerous, and Charlie Brown did well to keep out the away team in the 23rd minute.
While Shanahan made the more routine stops, Brown was certainly the busier of the two goalkeepers, and he tipped another decent effort around the post as the Grecians looked to kill the game.
But just a few moments before the interval, the Shrimpers found a way back into the contest when a couple of individual errors in the City defence allowed Kaan Sezgin to advance forward and win his team a foul inside the area. Fiddes converted the resulting 12-yard kick to halve the deficit to change the focus of the two managers’ team talks at the break.
The Essex club, however, made four substitutions for the second half, as they also altered their approach with them becoming more aggressive with their pressing out of possession.
Those changes appeared to have some sort of impact as Shanahan was called into action straight after the restart to deny United duo, Sezgin and Mo Amir.
The momentum appeared to be shifting, however, Brown’s save with his legs just after the hour mark reminded everyone that Exeter were still a force in attack.
Donati’s side came within a whisker of restoring their two-goal cushion when they curled a free-kick just off-target, while four minutes later, the Devonians clipped the post from the right-hand side of the box with a powerful strike.
Southend struck the woodwork themselves when they curled a free-kick onto the top of the bar, but, with nine minutes left on the clock, the Shrimpers grabbed their equaliser. Amir floated a set-piece towards the back post, and Bragg rose highest to nod the cross into the back of the net to spark celebrations on the home bench.
Exeter’s youngsters looked to bounce back quickly, and following a flurry of late yellow cards for United as the pressure intensified, one final chance fell the visitors’ way as the game ticked into stoppage time. The Grecians' shot, however, flew high over the crossbar much to the relief of everyone in blue.
Full-time sounded not long after, which meant the Donati and his squad returned to Devon with just a point, however, the opportunity to learn and develop was embraced by everyone involved, and the City youth side will be hoping to go one step further and record their first Merit League Two win when they return to home soil this coming weekend for round three.
Exeter City’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Tom Donati: “Overall, it was a great experience for the boys. We had an overnight trip, a long journey and a long few days away, but we started brightly, looked to be on the front foot, pressed well in spells and scored early on. We scored a well-worked second goal, and were in the ascendency and in control. We looked vibrant and energetic, and made five very good openings to score and might’ve been out of sight.
“But we played into Southend’s hands just before half-time, and that Southend goal was a real blow for the boys as we had been in the ascendency for all of the previous 45 minutes, so we felt hard done by. But we regrouped, which was a learning curve for all of us, and discussed a few tactical bits, and what we had to do psychologically and mentally in our approach for the second half.
“After the break though, we got drawn into losing control of the game, and things went exactly how Southend wanted it to go. They were more aggressive, but we didn’t move the ball as well. We still created three clear-cut chances, and should’ve had good opportunities to score another goal, but, ultimately, a set-piece goal for them cost us.
“The boys have obviously come away from Saturday deflated. It was a long couple of days but it is all a part of their learning process. What I said to them after the game was that, particularly at Exeter City, and when you live in the South West, and a fair old distance from the rest of the UK, every other weekend is an away trip, and an overnight stay. So, because of that, and we hope that their journey takes them into the professional game, particularly at this club, that is something they need to be on their toes with, and to become aligned with what that looks like to get the best out of themselves and each other when staying overnight and preparing themselves in the best way possible.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Dylan Shanahan, Jacca Cavendish, Sam Joce, Scott Simmons, Liam Oakes, Tom Dean, Pedro Borges, Alfie Cunningham, Alfie Clark, Santino Ohanaka, Kye Cooper
Subs: Aamir Daniels, Max Edgecombe, Mitch Beardmore, Theo Cutler