Jack Sparkes on target in opening Merit League match
Exeter City’s under-18s started this season’s Merit League campaign with a 1-1 draw away to Gillingham.
The hosts had the perfect chance to take the lead in the first period, but a missed penalty meant at half-time the scoreline remained goalless.
Jack Sparkes gave the visitors the lead on 51 minutes, before a quick response from the Kent club meant the game was tied at 1-1 just before the hour mark.
A red card to Gills saw the home side reduced to 10 men for the final 15 minutes, and the Grecians were unlucky not to make the most of the numerical advantage in the dying moments. After Sparkes was brought down inside the 18-yard box, Max Smallcombe failed to convert from the spot resulting in the points being shared in the South East.
It was Gillingham who settled the quicker out of the two teams, putting Dan Green’s men on the back foot early on after their long journey eastbound from Devon.
In what was a very tight pitch, the hosts played a direct style of football, with their agile forwards causing the Exeter defence all sorts of problems with their pace and movement.
The away side had to be at their best defensively to keep a lively Gills attack out, and centre-back Max Gillard and goalkeeper Lewis Williams both produced fine blocks to keep the score at 0-0.
After 30 minutes, Williams produced an even better save after Alex Hartridge had fouled his marker inside the penalty box. The subsequent spot-kick was smartly saved by the shot-stopper and from then on, the better chances started falling City’s way.
Archie Collins linked up with Sparkes in the brightest first half moment for the visitors but Sparkes’ effort was fired wide.
With a little more freedom in their play, it took just six second-half minutes for the Grecians break the deadlock. Hartridge fed Sparkes from the left wing before the youngster controlled and coolly slotted the ball low into the corner of the net.
However, City’s advantage didn’t last long, as the hosts made the most of some defensive uncertainty. A long ball caused confusion in the Exeter ranks, leading to Josh Hancock diverting the ball past his own goalkeeper to level the scores.
With 15 minutes to play, both sides were still in a shot of winning the contest. Sparkes continued to cause havoc on his wing, and when he latched onto a through ball he collided with the Gillingham goalkeeper causing uproar between the two sets of players.
Despite a yellow card issued to both Sparkes and the Kent shop stopper, another Gills player was shown a red card for his part in the aftermath of the initial incident.
Against 10 men, the away team increased the pressure on their opponents’ goal. Green’s men spurned a number of half chances as the time ticked down, but they couldn’t have asked for a better chance of stealing the victory when substitute Will Dean played in Sparkes on 90 minutes. The winger tumbled under the clumsy challenge of the Gillingham defender and a penalty kick was awarded. However, captain Smallcombe just missed the target with his effort, meaning a 1-1 draw was how it ended in what was an incident-packed match.
Exeter City under 18s’ coach Dan Green, said: “It’s great to be back playing again, and overall I thought we were the better team. Obviously, it’s disappointing we haven’t won after we’ve been given a 90th-minute penalty, but it says a lot about Max Smallcombe’s character that moments after, when the full-time whistle had been blown, that he was there discussing our performance with the rest of the lads.
“It wasn’t a fantastic match for our possession game, and the guys were tested in ways they haven’t really faced before so it was certainly a positive game for their development. We were on the back foot at the start but I’m pleased with how the boys stood up and faced those challenges.”
“Jack Sparkes was excellent with his work rate, and he showed how conscience he was towards his defensive work today which was outstanding. His quality on the ball with his passing and shooting was the icing on the cake.
“I feel the boys are in a better place in terms of their development after this game, though I feel our next match against Swindon will be a different kind of test. We will see if our guys will have the ability to adapt to them and what they bring to the table.”
Exeter City under 18s:Lewis Williams, Sam Haynes, Alex Hartridge, Max Gillard, Josh Hancock, Mitch Thomas, Max Smallcombe, Harry Kite, Jack Sparkes, Lucas White, Archie Collins.
Subs: Will Dean, Jordan Dyer, Cameron Hargreaves, Brandon Parsons.