Exeter City’s under-18s suffered a 4-3 defeat to Northampton Town on Saturday in their final home match of the Merit League One campaign.
The Cobblers broke the deadlock on 19 minutes, before a positive response from Chad Gribble’s side saw them equalise eight minutes later thanks to Will Dean’s neat footwork.
Both sides traded goals in a short spell afterwards, with Theo Simpson netting Exeter’s second before the hosts scored again in first-half injury time thanks to Jack Stafford’s free-kick.
Despite some early pressure from the Devon club, two quick-fire goals from the away team at the beginning of the second period turned the game around, and with the windy conditions providing a stern test in itself, the Grecians were unable to find an equaliser before the full-time whistle sounded.
The swirling gales meant playing an intricate passing game was tricky, and during a cagey opening five minutes, both teams were trying to adapt to the conditions.
The visitors fired wide early on, but they carved out the first half-chance in the 11th minute, with goalkeeper Felix Norman saving well at his near post.
Town then dragged a decent opening off-target when they took advantage of a loose clearance, but they made amends by scoring the afternoon’s first goal just minutes later.
Following a throw-in on the left flank, a mazy dribble led to a ball being played into the Cobblers’ forward in front of goal. Despite Norman’s best efforts, the power from the close-range strike beat the goalkeeper.
Two chances in two minutes demonstrated the character in Exeter City's team, with Charlie Lawrence left frustrated at himself for not making the best of a decent opportunity when he curled an effort wide.
It was a bright spell from Exeter’s youngsters, and after seeing the away goalkeeper deny Simpson with a low save, the leveller did arrive on 27 minutes.
Lawrence’s deep corner was nodded back into a dangerous position. The ball fell to Dean, and he showed impressive composure and agility to free up some space for himself and guide the ball into the bottom corner to restore parity.
The hosts’ hard work was rightfully rewarded with the goal, but it was undone just a minute later when Northampton scored from the resulting kick-off.
Another attack down the left wing resulted in a low cross that evaded everyone and reached the far post, where the visitors took full advantage of the sloppy defending to retake the lead.
In similar ways, the reaction shown from Devon outfit was bright once again, and just after the half-hour mark, they managed to score once again to keep themselves alive in the contest.
Dean collected the ball in the middle of the park, before sending a delightful pass over the opposition's defence into Simpson’s path. The striker ran onto the ball and kept his cool, finishing low past the keeper to make it 2-2.
Both sides finished the first 45 minutes strongly, with Norman coming to the Grecians’ aid when he stopped a deflected goalbound effort. However, it was at the other end of the pitch the fifth goal of the day did arrive, albeit in fortuitous circumstances.
As the half ticked into the 46th minute, City won themselves a free-kick just inside the opposition half. Stafford stood over the set play with the intention of delivering one last ball into a dangerous area for his teammates to compete over. However, the defender looped his delivery into the air, and with the breeze catching it right, the ball sailed over the Town goalkeeper and went over the line via a touch off of the underside of the crossbar.
It put the home side is a very good position at half-time, and they looked to build on that after the restart when they managed to win themselves a corner. However, their attacking momentum was halted by smart defending.
Five minutes after the break though, it was the Cobblers who netted next, courtesy of some decisive passing moves. Following an effective give-and-go, one midfielder for the away side slotted home his one-on-one with a low finish to level the scores.
That attacking pressure continued after the goal, and just six minutes later Northampton scored again to lead the eventful match once again.
Following a long ball forward from the visitors, Town’s attacker collected the ball and shrugged off the pressure from Cheick Diabate to get himself into a dangerous position. The Cobblers’ player fired past Norman to score his second and make it 4-3.
In response to the double blow, the game became an even contest, with both sides trading chances that went off target.
Gribble turned to his bench as he looked to introduce renewed energy to his ranks, with Jay Stansfield, Lewis Wilson, and Max Clark all brought on to add a different dimension to the attacking third.
The added vigour led to Exeter’s trialist stinging the palms of the away shot-stopper with a long-range strike, whilst Northampton also went close through from a 25-yard effort from their full-back.
Clear-cut chances were difficult to muster in the final moments, and in spite of the hosts trying to exploit the opposition defence with the help of the strong gusts, it led to no real opening the Devonian frontline could utilise.
It meant that when the full-time whistle sounded, it was a defeat for the young Grecians in what was an eventful, and difficult match to control, and take full advantage from.
Exeter City under-18s coach, Chad Gribble, said: “I thought the conditions spoilt the game really. Sometimes that isn’t the case, and it comes down to one team using them better, but they were that tough that you saw some goals and some plays that you wouldn’t normally see. It was a complete leveller.
“After we fell behind to the first goal, the character and belief was good from the team. The goal they scored wasn’t from any real pressure from them, and likewise for our goal. The match was a 50-50 contest because of the conditions. If there was an area in which we were disappointed in, it was the way we defended their goals. The conditions affected the turnover in possession, and we didn’t have the right balance in place when we did give the ball away. The goals were definitely preventable.
“At half-time, I felt we were in a good position, and we started the second half well by winning a set-piece and almost bundling the ball over the line. The game was always back and forth, and at half-time, there was always going to be more goals in the match, it was just whether it was going to come for us or not.
“I think we were just missing a maturity to our play. The game required a different approach to just our quality on the ball, and a knowledge and know-how of protecting our box better and staying in the game. The best players get through those periods unscathed, and Northampton exploited those opportunities when we gave them the chances, and we failed to take full advantage when they presented us with openings.
“Scoring three goals is pleasing. There was a period this season when we weren’t taking our chances, and this was a game which didn’t present a lot of chances to us. The way we fought back was good, and the energy and spirit levels never dropped which was pleasing to see.
“Tuesday’s Youth Alliance cup final will be a different kind of game, with different conditions and different personnel available to us. This defeat is going to keep the players sharp in their minds, as players tend to be sharper off the back of a loss, and we will be aware of what we didn’t do in the game here. That will give us our best shot on Tuesday of competing for the trophy."
Exeter City under-18s: Felix Norman, Louis Morison, Cheick Diabate, Jack Stafford, Joe Belsten, Will Dean, Jack Veale, Nelson Iseguan, Charlie Lawrence, Theo Simpson, A Trialist. Subs: Jack Arthur, Max Clark, Alex Moyse, Jay Stansfield, Lewis Wilson