Exeter City’s under-18s began the 2023/2024 in the best possible way with a 2-0 victory over Swindon Town U18s on Saturday.
The Robins had the better of the opportunities in the opening half, but Josh Keyes received a red card for a bad challenge in the lead-up to the interval to really swing the momentum.
The Grecians controlled large periods in the second period, and they broke the deadlock on 66 minutes when Tom Dean bundled home Guilio Maroni’s cross-shot.
Moments later Theo Cutler displayed his predatory skills firing in his side’s second to seal all three points, to hand Tom Donati’s team the dream start to this year’s Youth Alliance South West division.
Following a successful pre-season, a sense of optimism buzzed around the City youngsters in the build-up to their first fixture of the new campaign.
Conditions at the Cliff Hill Train Ground were continuously changing, a little like the Exeter lineup as Liam Cartwright, an Under-16, slotted in at the heart of the defence, while utility man, Liam Oakes, started the match as an advanced playmaker.
The opening exchanges saw both teams try and settle, and while the two sets of players both enjoyed positive passages in possession, very little came from those phases in the opening 10 minutes.
The game did settle down a little later, however, and it was the visitors who began to build up a rhythm. In the 12th minute, Dean was robbed of the ball, which led to a Town striker one-on-one with the goalkeeper, but the shot was dragged horribly off target.
Swindon continued to knock at the door, and they saw a goal rightfully disallowed for offside after 17 minutes when a neat move saw an initial effort charged down, before the rebound was tucked away ahead of the lineman’s flag. A minute later, the wasteful Robins spurned another opportunity when a poor first touch meant the ball got stuck under the forward’s feet when he was trying to get a shot away.
Although Dylan Shanahan was the busier shot-stopper, he hadn’t been forced to make any crucial saves, however, as the game ticked into the second quarter, the ‘keeper made a significant contribution to keep things goalless. Dean’s loose pass could only find a Town shirt, and the away midfielder got himself within shooting range before trying to guide the ball into the net, however, a big stop by Shanahan’s left foot deflected the ball away from danger.
Up at the other end, the Devonians had little to shout about, but a glimmer of positivity shone through when an attack down the right saw play move into the attacking third. A pullback located Maroni, before the midfielder flashed a volley over the top.
A minute later, Shanahan was again denying Swindon with a variety of different saves, before arguably the turning point of the contest came six minutes before the interval.
As the ball broke free, Alfie Cunningham was felled by a dangerous sliding challenge from Keyes which gave the referee very little option but to brandish a red card to hand the home side the man advantage with more than 50% of the match still to play.
The Grecians used that extra space to control proceedings after the break. Despite not really opening the Robins' defence in any way during the first 10 minutes of the second period, they passed the ball with more precision and decisiveness as they looked to wear the opposition down.
Some good link-up play in the 56th minute saw Cunningham release Dean down the right flank. Dean, now wearing the captain’s armband and operating further up the pitch, tried to pick out Cutler inside the six-yard box, however, some tight marking meant the attacker couldn’t get any clean contact on the ball, and eventually the ball was cleared.
The threats were beginning to come from all across the pitch, and on the left side, Stanford-Daniels advanced just after the hour mark following another accurate ball from Cunningham, however, a tame centre meant the attack came to nothing.
Just before the midpoint of the half though, the deadlock was broken courtesy of another sweeping move put together by the City players. Another surge down the left wing saw Cunningham get to the byline, however, the playmaker’s cross was initially repelled. Maroni picked the ball up in a dangerous position, and his first-time attempt was drilled across the face of goal, before Dean converted from close range to open the scoring.
The confidence grew in the Exeter players, and they continued to play with a swagger as they looked to kill the game with another against their deflated opponents.
The lead was doubled on 72 minutes when Maroni clipped a lovely ball over the defence for Dean to run on to. Dean sent in a low ball into the box, which one Town centre-back was unable to deal with. That allowed Cutler a sniff of an opportunity, and the poacher took possession and slotted a snap-shop inside the far post to send Donati and the rest of the coaching staff wild.
The visitors tried to get a foothold in the game, but they rarely had the ball long enough to make a dent in the Devon club’s defence. With 10 minutes remaining, Swindon perhaps should have done better from a set-piece when a free header was glanced wide with the goal at the forward’s mercy.
But some solid game management meant the Robins never really had a hope of getting back into the game, as Jake Richards’ speculative, but decent long-range effort late on was the closest the match came to a third goal.
The referee blew for full-time not long after, which meant City’s youngsters took all three points from the opening weekend, and they sit second in the standings before they travel to Portsmouth U18s for their next league game on Saturday.
Exeter City’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Tom Donati: “It is a pleasing start to the season, with a clean sheet, two goals - one for our centre forward - and some real good patterns of play as well. I think, to be honest, the game changed when one of their players was sent off, and I think that became a crucial moment in the game.
“After the first five minutes we went back inside our shells a little and, to be honest, the conditions didn’t help too much, but neither did our decision making. I feel like we got caught up in trying to play over-excessively, with too many touches at times, and taking up other people’s spaces, forgetting our simple rotations and patterns when trying to play outing we were probably a little too enthusiastic. I think that caused us, and we caused ourselves some problems.
“I think both goals have come from what we have been working on, getting the ball into those areas and both have come from crosses across the box which is something we have been working on. The boys found the spaces much better in the second half with the man advantage, but what was most pleasing was Liam Oakes was playing as a number 10 and just dealt with it and was Mr Reliable, and also Guilio Maroni as well controlled the midfield, it was a really mature performance from him as well.
“I told the players at the end of the game that this was only one game, so it is great to have two goals and a clean sheet, but it is still only one game. We want to overachieve and push ourselves, so it is crucial now that we do that. We need to stretch ourselves every day in training and make sure that we recover the best that we can.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Dylan Shanahan, Aamir Stanford-Daniels, Kye Cooper, Max Edgecombe, Liam Cartwright, Tom Dean, Guilio Maroni, Jake Richards, Alfie Cunningham, Liam Oakes, Theo Cutler