Exeter City’s under-18s can count themselves a little unlucky following their 3-0 defeat to table-toppers Oxford United last Saturday.
During the first hour, the young Grecians stood toe-to-toe with their opponents, threatening to take the lead on numerous occasions whilst it remained goalless.
However, the turning point came just past the hour mark, when The U’s hit the visitors on the break, scoring the opening goal at the second opportunity following a good save from City goalkeeper Felix Norman.
After a physically demanding week before the game, fatigue crept into the Devon club’s ranks during the latter stages of the match, resulting in Oxford taking full advantage with two more goals, leaving under-18s coach Chad Gribble, and his players, disappointed they couldn’t convert their positive performance into some points.
Morale was certainly high at the weekend as Exeter travelled up to Oxfordshire following back-to-back victories in two different competitions.
The hosts came into the contest unbeaten but it was the away side that began proceedings the better. Starting the match, the Grecians displayed an early attacking intent as they went forward from the initial kick-off. They worked the ball wide before Joe Belsten’s centre was only met by a tame goalbound effort.
But it was that bright move that put the visitors in the right direction for the match. The players showed real positivity and ambition going forward, and attacked the United defensive third frequently down the wings. Belsten provided more decent crosses from the right flank, but they came to nothing as City looked the more threatening.
Without the ball, the Devon outfit looked organised as they applied decent pressure on the home team. Norman was relatively untroubled, with the players in front of him doing well by pressing, pinching possession, and generally halting the build-up play early enough.
The game’s stand out chance in the first half fell the way of Gribble’s men after 25 minutes when Lewis Wilson’s shot worked the goalkeeper from a tight angle.
The U’s started the second period better, altering their strategy to a more direct and aggressive style. They began to nullify the away side’s possession football as they enjoyed their most prominent spell of the contest.
On the hour mark, the Grecians began to get on top of things again, with Belsten again proving to be a menace down the right side. The full-back’s crosses threatened but, with his teammates unable to convert from them, it allowed Oxford to counter-attack from them.
From one instance, Oxford were able to break out quickly and forced Norman into a decent stop. However, the hosts reacted first to the loose ball and scored from the rebound to give themselves a lead against the run of play.
As the game approached the final 15 minutes, tiredness started to creep into the legs of the visitors as they began to feel the effects of their midweek Youth Alliance Cup game with Swindon Town.
It meant that United increased the pressure they put on their opponents as they looked to kill the game in the dying moments.
With 10 minutes remaining, the home team doubled their advantage with a stunning effort. Although the City defence initially dealt with the first ball, the clearance fell straight to another U’s player 25 yards out from goal, and he flashed a stunning strike into the net to give the league leaders a comfortable lead.
Oxford scored once more with two minutes remaining as the legs of the Devonians just seemed to run out.
Exeter City under-18s coach, Chad Gribble, said: “Football can be a funny old game sometimes, and if we came away from this match with a 1-0 victory I believe we would have been saying that this would be our best performance of the season.
“Unfortunately, we have been hit on the counter-attack and then suffered a defeat. Oxford are a decent side, they haven’t lost yet, and despite this defeat, this performance was certainly one we can continue to build from.
“The first goal was certainly a defining point. We felt on top at half time, and then rode the pressure they put on us at the start of the second half. We were looking like we were getting back on top when they hit us with that first goal. They had no real goal efforts in that first half, and it is frustrating to concede from their first real opportunity. It was definitely a turning point and it certainly helped them afterwards.
“After the match, we reflected on the game as a group. We all believe that if we can replicate our performance; dominate the first 45 minutes, and stand toe-to-toe for the next 15 minutes against a side as decent as Oxford, then we can compete with anyone in this league.”
Exeter City under-18s: Felix Norman, Joe Belsten, Jordan Dyer, Cheick Diabate, Louis Morison, Will Dean, Tom Preece, Max Clark, James Dodd, Jay Stansfield, Lewis Wilson. Subs: Jack Arthur, Callum Brake, Ben Chrisene, Frank Lovett