Exeter City's under-18s fell to a 4-2 Merit League defeat last Saturday following a difficult afternoon at home to an experienced AFC Wimbledon side.
The Grecians conceded twice inside a frantic opening 10 minutes, when their opponents scored the rebound from Jack Arthur’s penalty save, before scrambling the ball home again moments later following some effective Dons wing play.
A determined fightback from the hosts saw them halve the deficit on the half-hour mark through Lewis Wilson, before they deservedly levelled five minutes later courtesy of Jack Veale’s curled effort.
Momentum dramatically swung after the break, and two goals in as many minutes at the start of the second half saw the away side re-establish their lead, which they were able to retain, to secure their third victory in four matches.
With the two teams coming into the league meeting in contrasting form, it was Wimbledon who were able to settle the quicker on Saturday and, using their early initiative, they were able to open the scoring inside the first two minutes.
Following a direct ball forward, City goalkeeper Jack Arthur advanced as he looked to gather the ball in to ease the pressure on his defence but a misjudgement from him meant he spilt the ball, gifting the onrushing attacker the chance to score.
The goalkeeper brought down the forward and a penalty was awarded but the custodian made up for his error as he saved the spot-kick. The rebound was then then tucked away by the visitors, giving them an early advantage.
The Dons continued to come forward after their goal, and in the 10th minute, they doubled their lead. A long diagonal pass allowed their wide midfielder to get on the ball and cut inside Joe Belsten. The mazy dribble caused havoc in the Devon club’s defence, and the ball was eventually forced home to make it 2-0.
After surviving that period through to the 20-minute mark, a break in play courtesy of an injury stoppage allowed for the home team to huddle up and regroup, which consequently saw the Grecians enjoy more of the ball and gain some sort of foothold in the contest.
After 30 minutes, the hosts managed to pull a goal back. Charlie Lawrence’s smart pass fed Wilson; but the attacker saw his one on one chance stopped by the Wimbledon keeper. Lawrence’s follow up shot was also saved and Wilson had another attempt, and he scored bringing his team back into the game.
That certainly settled City’s youngsters, and they were soon on level terms thanks to some intricate combination play.
After winning back possession on the left side, Veale exchanged passes with Lawrence before working his way towards goal. The midfielder bent an exquisite shot out of the reach of the goalkeeper and into the back of the net to restore parity.
The momentum had shifted from the early moments of the match, and with the territory and possession all in favour of the Devonians at the end of the eventful first 45 minutes, the visitors were certainly a little fortunate half-time arrived to put an end to the domination by Gribble’s men.
But, in similar ways to the beginning of the first half, the second period saw the Dons start extremely quickly, and they scored a 46th minute goal to retake the lead.
After shifting the ball wide, the away side then attacked infield thanks to one midfielder moving the ball towards the centre of the pitch, before unleashing a strike on goal. The shot was initially blocked, and the Wimbledon striker latched onto the loose ball, and curled a shot beyond Arthur to score his team’s third of the afternoon.
Just a couple of minutes later, the score line changed again, after a second penalty was awarded to the visitors.
Following another long ball into the final third of the pitch, a defensive misjudgement from the home team meant a scrambling Jack Stafford could only haul down his opposite number inside the 18-yard box resulting in another spot-kick. The attempt was despatched decisively making it 4-2.
The tough afternoon was brought to a close with no further change to the score line, but the difference in experience between the two teams was evident as the match entered the latter stages. The younger players of Gribble’s squad will be hoping to learn and develop from the lessons of this encounter, although there were certainly times when they did match their older opponents which will offer plenty of encouragement to the City faithful.
Exeter City Under-18s Coach, Chad Gribble: “I thought this match came down to the ages of the two sets of players. They had plenty of scholars out, and overall an experienced outfit, whereas we had eight of our under-16s playing on Saturday.
“We knew it was always going to be a tough test, but for 25 minutes of that first half, some of the stuff we showed was excellent, and we displayed what we are truly capable of. We didn’t really have the same fitness or physical levels as them, or have the same tactical nous, but what we wanted was just out of reach for us here, but it wasn’t for the want of trying. Those are the things we will take into training with us this week, before our next match.
“We are disappointed we went behind early, but we went in with a positive mindset, but teams will always try and upset your gameplan. Wimbledon really needed half-time to come because we had found ourselves some momentum. The break really killed that momentum and we were unable to continue it in the second half. After we had gained the upper hand during those moments in the first half, when it looked like we could even score a third goal, we’ve ended up losing in the end.
“We are away to Luton Town in our next match. We are working towards putting in a full performance over 90 minutes. We are trying to figure out how games need to be approached; looking to improve the early moments, when a game is a bit more scrappy, as well as sustaining our performance levels when we find a way back into a contest. But the more these players train and test themselves against good opposition, the more improvements will be made. It will be a long process, but if they remain hungry, and their desire is there, I believe we’ve got a good chance of success with this group.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Jack Arthur, Cheick Diabate, Jack Stafford, Joe Belsten, Max Clark, Jack Veale, Louis Morison, Charlie Lawrence, Jay Stansfield, Nelson Iseguan, Lewis Wilson
Subs: Alex Moyse, Alfie Pond, Theo Simpson, Frank Lovett
Up next at St James Park:
City take on Oldham Athletic on Saturday, April 27 in a 3pm kick-off. Ticket prices are cheaper in advance. Click here to buy online.