Under-18s beat Plymouth Argyle to put title destiny in their own hands
Exeter City’s under-18s triumphed 4-3 in an eventful Devon derby on Saturday to put the destiny of the South West Youth Alliance title in their own hands.
The victory took City back to the top of the table – two points ahead of second-placed Bristol Rovers having played a game less – and crucially three points ahead of third-placed Portsmouth, who have a game in hand over City but an inferior goal difference of nine.
The match, being played on the newly installed 3G pitch at the Cliff Hill training ground, saw the visitors take the lead after 17 minutes.
After taking a short free-kick down the right flank, an outswinging cross was cleared by the Exeter defence but fell kindly for the Pilgrims, and they smashed the ball home from close range.
Archie Collins and Cameron Hargreaves then went close to equalizing before Alex Hartridge scored for City. The goal came from Smallcombe’s corner that ricocheted into Hartridge’s path on the left-hand side of the box and his powerful shot flew past the Argyle keeper and in off the crossbar.
Dan Green’s boys then ended the half stronger, with Collins testing the Argyle goalkeeper once more, before Josh Hancock glanced a header just wide.
Argyle sent a header wide of the post in the first attack of the second period, before Exeter turned to their substitutes’ bench for an introduction of energy and ingenuity.
The Pilgrims wasted a glorious chance on the hour mark from a wide free-kick, before Green sent on another substitute in the hope of grabbing that important third goal of the game.
And it was the three replacements that combined to give the Grecians the lead on 67 minutes.
Brandon Parsons’ hard work down the left wing allowed Josh Key to centre the ball. His cross was met acrobatically by Jack Sparkes and, despite the keeper’s best efforts, the ball crossed the line and gave the hosts the lead for the first time.
The goal lifted Green’s men to another gear, and they could’ve grabbed their third goal not long after with Hargreaves and Parsons both wasting well-worked chances.
However, City did grab their third however on 79 minutes, and it was worth the wait. Joel Randall found himself in a pocket of space on the edge of the Plymouth penalty box, and he unleashed an arrowing strike beyond the reach of the goalkeeper to make it 3-1.
The two-goal lead was swiftly halved though. After losing possession as they tried to play out from the back, Exeter’s defence could do nothing as the visitors took advantage of a clearcut opportunity.
But within a minute, the score changed again. Hartridge’s back post run wasn’t tracked, and he met Randall’s deep corner on the half-volley to make it 4-2.
Then as game entered the last three minutes, Mitch Thomas unfortunately tangled with a Pilgrims forward inside the 18-yard box.
The subsequent spot-kick was dispatched but, despite pulling the score back to a one-goal deficit, it wasn’t enough. City, who were still streaming forward in the search of a fifth goal afterwards, managed the circumstances well and held on to record a precious victory against the old enemy.
Exeter City under-18s coach Dan Green, said: “I thought we gave a better performance than the scoreline suggested. We were slow to start with, but once we got our possession right and were a bit more patient we got better. The goal before half-time was important and we grew into the game even more in the second half. It got a little nervy towards the end, but overall it was a decent performance, though we have to tighten it up in some areas.
“We faced a good Plymouth team. They started the better and if you are going to be 1% off your game they are going to punish you. But we showed good character, and I am pleased we kept trying to play our game and we got our rewards for it.
“You’d like to think every goal is preventable, and they scored through no moments of real brilliance. We could have definitely done better defending them, however it can happen to the best players in the world. Arguably it was the perfect time to make those mistakes because we have still managed to win the game.
“Joel Randall was excellent. He scored a really good goal, and was excellent in both sides of his game. Alex Hartridge demonstrated good concentration and his performance was very well put together. The subs were excellent also. Josh Key added energy, Brandon Parsons worked hard in attack and Jack Sparkes scored a good goal. I want everyone to be pushing for a start, and the better we are in training, the harder it is to pick a starting XI on the weekend. It absolutely shows the quality in depth in this squad.
“We now have a couple of big games coming up. We want to finish this part of the season brightly and we want to reap the rewards the lads deserve because a lot of hard work has gone in over the season so far. We are aiming to get into Merit League One in good form, and this was a good positive performance towards that. However we know we aren’t the real deal just yet, as there were lessons to learn from the match here.”
Exeter City under-18s: Lewis Williams, Alex Hartridge, Josh Hancock, Max Gillard, Sam Haynes, Joel Randall, Mitch Thomas, Max Smallcombe, Cameron Hargreaves, Archie Collins, Ben Seymour. Substitutes: Brandon Parsons, Josh Key, Jack Sparkes, Lucas White