Exeter City returned from their winter break with a comprehensive 5-1 victory away at Bristol Rovers on Saturday.
Jordan Dyer, Chieck Diabate, James Dodd and Theo Simpson were all on target in the game that extended their winning run to four games and closed the gap between them and second-placed AFC Bournemouth to just six points.
Rovers started the game in a mid-table position and were looking to record a victory that would bring them closer to a top half finish in the South West division.
But it was the visitors who started the brighter, and they used their early dominance to break the deadlock after just three minutes.
Dodd won a free-kick in a dangerous position on the edge of the home side’s penalty box and slipped the ball into Dyer in a great position and the defender finished well to give his side an early lead.
As a result, City started bossing possession and looked threatening numerous times, but they were punished at the other end by a rapid breakaway.
Following an attack down the right flank, a teasing cross was met at the far post by another Bristolian body, and the ball was tapped home restoring parity in the 20th minute against the run of play.
The conceded goal didn’t seem to faze the away team though and they quickly settled down into a rhythm once again. The Grecians started controlling the centre of the pitch, getting a strong foothold in the match, whilst defending the hosts' counter-attacks much more effectively.
Gribble’s men retook the lead on the half-hour mark, thanks to another set-piece. Charlie Lawrence won a free-kick on the left wing, which saw Dodd deliver another inviting cross in front of goal. Diabate got his head to the ball first, and his effort beat the Pirates’ goalkeeper.
The one-goal cushion saw Exeter through to half-time, and they came out quickly after the restart looking to add to it. Despite having lots of territory a solid Rovers defence actually saw the home team come through the visitors’ encouraging period unscathed.
Off the back of their good defensive work, the home side enjoyed a positive 15-minute period themselves, pinning the Devonians back into their own penalty area.
As the Bristol side looked for an equaliser and a way back into the contest, they forced City keeper, Felix Norman, into an outstanding save on 65 minutes, in what was to be a key moment of the game.
Off the back of the save, the Grecians regained some sort of control of the match and went on to have their brightest moments of the contest.
On 72 minutes, the score became 3-1 after a well-worked move. The ball was moved from the wing before Lewis Wilson crossed for Simpson. The substitute got the first touch before the ball was saved by the hosts’ shot stopper but Dodd tapped in the rebound to extend his team's lead.
Just a minute later it was 4-1. Will Dean won the ball back in his own half before linking up with Simpson. The forward latched onto the through ball to go one-on-one with the goalkeeper and slot the ball underneath him to score his first goal since his lengthy injury lay-off.
Gribble’s men continued their onslaught, and they scored their final goal of the afternoon 15 minutes from time.
Some smart thinking from Dodd saw the midfielder play a quick free-kick to Simpson before the attacker crossed from the left. Despite a defender recovering his position, he inadvertently deflected the ball past his own keeper and into the back of the net.
I am really pleased. The scoreline doesn’t really reflect how the game went as they were more of a test than the 5-1 scoreline suggests.
“Despite playing some excellent stuff at times, the real positive from today was the resilience the boys showed, in particular getting through the period when Bristol Rovers enjoyed a decent spell in the second half.
"I think that is down to the maturity the players have shown, and how much the young players have grown up. It isn’t very often that over the course of 90 minutes it’ll all be you, your opponents will more than likely have a spell and I thought we did well dealing with theirs. That definitely gave us that platform to score our three late goals today."
“We took the chances we had, and credit has to go to our attacking players for that. The goals came off the back of some really good distribution, and credit also has to go to the players providing those chances. Will Dean was outstanding in midfield both with and without the ball, and Theo Simpson scoring off the bench after his broken leg really put the icing on top of the cake. He deserved that after the hard work he has put into his rehab. That was a really proud moment.
“It was certainly a day where everything came together. It was a day which demonstrated to the players that teams can have spells in matches, but it is how you end up taking advantage of your own. We have Swindon Town next, which will provide us with another tough test before our Youth Alliance Cup semi-final at the weekend.”
Exeter City under-18s: Felix Norman, Jordan Dyer, Cheick Diabate, Joe Belsten, Max Clark, Louis Morison, Will Dean, Charlie Lawrence, Lewis Wilson, James Dodd, A Trialist. Subs: Jack Stafford, Theo Simpson, Alex Moyse, Jack Veale, Jay Stansfield.