Exeter City’s under-18s rounded off their Youth Alliance South West fixture list with a tremendous 2-0 victory over second-placed AFC Bournemouth in one of their best performances of the season.
Cheick Diabate broke the deadlock 10 minutes into the second-half when he scrambled the ball home following James Dodd’s free-kick and then Theo Simpson doubled the lead on 65 minutes.
A strong defensive display from the hosts ensured they kept their clean sheet, securing a brilliant three points against a very good opponent.
The win confirmed that Exeter finish third in the final South West standings and they secured a spot in Merit League One for the second half of the campaign.
Chad Gribble and his squad were hoping to take the performance from last week’s Youth Alliance Cup victory over Northampton Town, into a tough final league fixture against Bournemouth.
The Cherries, who sat a place above the Devon club in the standings, had already qualified for the Merit League and were enjoying a 16-match unbeaten run. It was a streak that stretched back as far as the reverse fixture between the two teams, back in mid-August, when City triumphed 3-2 in an eventful contest.
However, Saturday’s fixture, despite the obvious quality on show from both sides, started scrappily. Both sets of players enjoyed spells of possession but with the defences on top in the opening exchanges no real threats were made on either goal.
It was the Grecians who created the first opportunity as Charlie Lawrence won back possession before linking up with Simpson. The midfielder was given the ball back before he fired a shot towards goal, which ended up being routinely saved by the Dorset goalkeeper.
The away side carved out a half-chance midway through the first period, but the effort was straight at Felix Norman, and his comfortable stop meant the scores remained at 0-0 for the rest of the half.
After the restart, as a result of winning the ball back in midfield, the hosts started to create more goalscoring chances.
After being played in down the right side, Simpson fired a shot just wide, whilst the trialist saw one effort smothered by the keeper from the left-hand channel.
The warning signs were there for Bournemouth with the two early second-half chances, and on 55 minutes, they went behind courtesy of a strike from a set piece.
After Lawrence was fouled, it was left to Dodd to curl in the resulting free-kick. His wicked delivery was first met by Dyer, who glanced the ball into a dangerous area for centre-back partner Diabate to react first and divert the ball over the goalline.
Gribble’s men widened their cushion just 10 minutes later, with Dodd at the heart of things again for his team. After stealing the ball away from a loose pass by his counterparts, the playmaker sent a perfectly weighted through ball to Simpson to start a breakaway. The forward fired his effort beyond the Cherries’ shot-stopper and into the corner with devastating effect.
In response, much of the play saw the visitors attempt to steal possession from the Devon outfit high up the pitch, playing with an aggressive press as they searched for a way back into the contest.
City countered that change of tactic from their opponents smartly, and created more opportunities to score again, and put the result beyond all doubt.
Substitute Lewis Wilson was lively when he was introduced to the fray, and his pass to Simpson saw another chance open up, but the striker overran the ball to halt the attack.
With five minutes remaining, the Dorset side came the close to setting up a nervy finish, when they struck the crossbar with a long-range drive, but it proved to be a day when Norman wasn’t going to be beaten. His clean sheet ensured the Grecians held on to the 2-0 scoreline, handing themselves a deserved victory against a talented opposition.
Exeter City under-18s coach Chad Gribble, said: “I’m really pleased. AFC Bournemouth had lost just once up until Saturday, and they were on an impressive 16-match unbeaten run. We knew how tough the match would be for us, but our performance was built off of our solid defensive structure. We knew they would look after the ball, and have a spell in the game, and we knew we had to make the most of our possession.
“Our balance here was right. We showed both sides of the game. Although we performed well against Northampton Town last week, we felt we didn’t do enough with the ball in that game, but here we showed our quality at winning the ball back, and taking the chances that we had. I’m delighted we got a deserved three points.
“It was certainly a great team performance. With the way we approached the match, everyone had to work hard and stay on task and the players did that. It was a very good game of football, and they are a good side. It was a hard fought win, and perhaps one of the toughest games we have had, but perhaps one of the best performances we have put in this season.
“It is certainly nice to finish the season with a victory and secure third place in the league. Ultimately we try and develop the players and help them realise and reach their potential, but with a result such as this, you can see we are certainly doing things right and playing well. The win here gives us confidence for our Youth Alliance cup final, but we will prepare for the match no differently, and we will give ourselves the best chance of securing the right result.”
Exeter City under-18s: Felix Norman, Jordan Dyer, Cheick Diabate, Louis Morison, Joe Belsten, Max Clark, James Dodd, Will Dean, Charlie Lawrence, Theo Simpson, A Trialist. Subs: Jack Stafford, Nelson Iseguan, Lewis Wilson