Exeter City’s under-18s ended their 2020 fixtures with a hard-fought 2-2 draw with Portsmouth under-18s in the Youth Alliance South West division on Saturday.
The Grecians found themselves behind inside 60 seconds when Pompey scored with a swift counter-attack, however, Chad Gribble’s team eventually settled and were unlucky not to equalise through some decent first-half opportunities.
Exeter’s youngsters did level matters four minutes into the second half thanks to Michael Lilley’s half-volley, but the Hampshire club responded well and retook the lead five minutes later courtesy of a controversial penalty.
City replied with added determination, and Lilley fired in his second of the game to restore parity and swing the contest truly in his team’s favour. Despite a strong finish to the game from the Devonians however, they were unable to take their late chances resulting in the two teams taking home a deserved point in their final game before the Christmas break.
Following last weekend’s convincing win over Yeovil Town U18s, the young Grecians welcomed Portsmouth’s youth team to the Cliff Hill Training Ground, with the south coast side sitting just one place and one point ahead of them in the league standings.
And it was third-placed Pompey who made the brighter start to proceedings which gave Gribble’s players an early mountain to conquer. Following the opening kick-off, a spell of early Exeter pressure eventually broke down, and a speedy transition of play had the visitors threatening with barely 40 seconds on the clock. The Hampshire side worked the ball quickly down the right flank, before a neat cross was turned home to hand Portsmouth the initial advantage seconds into the contest.
It was a sign of things to come during the opening 15 minutes. In a dominant spell, the away team enjoyed plenty of possession, with lots of crosses and forward passes that forced the City defence to be on top form to deny their opponents any clear-cut openings.
Eventually, after a quarter of an hour, the hosts settled into a rhythm, which resulted in them creating their first meaningful efforts on goal. As the game neared the midway point of the first half, Nelson Iseguan’s centre was too far ahead of Sonny Cox and Frank Lovett for them to divert the ball goalwards, while shortly after, some smart goalkeeping stopped Jack Veale from scoring a certain goal following good wing play.
The Grecians looked their most dangerous during this fruitful spell, but they failed to find a leveller despite all of their attacking pressure. Another chance for Cox came from a set-piece routine, however, the striker could only send a header wide meaning Gribble’s men remained behind.
The match evened out as the first period came towards a close, however, following the restart, the home team got quickly back into top gear again as they continued their search for a lifeline.
Exeter found a way back into the contest on 49 minutes with a well-worked goal. Lovett advanced down the right wing before a smart cut back to the edge of the box found Lilley in a pocket of space. The midfielder sent a half-volley towards goal with his left foot that went beyond the dive of the Pompey goalkeeper and into the back of the net to tie the game up.
However, the teams weren’t level for long. Portsmouth attacked with intent down the right side, and following some scrappy passages, City backline's squandered the opportunity to clear their lines. The Hampshire side took full advantage and forced their way into the 18-yard box, before one Pompey player went to ground and won his team a dubious penalty for contact with Iseguan. The spot-kick was converted confidently in the 54th minute to make it 2-1 to the away side.
Despite the conceded effort, the Grecians displayed grit and determination in wanting to get back on to level terms quickly. Just before the hour mark, their attacking endeavour was rewarded with a second goal. Iseguan swung in a deep ball which was kept alive at the far post by Lilley. The playmaker’s first touch took him away from his opposite man, before he fired in a powerful drive that beat the Portsmouth goalie at his near post to make it a four-goal game.
That goal truly swung the momentum for Gribble’s men, and they controlled much of the play during the latter stages. Not long after their second, the hosts almost took the lead for the first time with a wonderful chance for their top goalscorer. Lilley influenced things from midfield, and his precise through pass fell to Cox, but he snatched at his chance and sent the ball off-target when a bit of composure was required.
Exeter continued to steam forward however, and the bench was used to add energy to their forward line. The substitutes played a key role when they mustered an opportunity with five minutes remaining. Alfie Clark got away from his marker, before his sumptuous cross located Charlie Hanson in front of goal. The forward was first to the ball, however, he could only direct his header wide of the post much to the relief of the Pompey players.
With City unable to turn their late dominance into any more goals, it meant that the scores stayed the same. A point apiece meant the two teams stayed third and fourth respectively, before they both return to action for the season restart on 9th January.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “I think a point was a fair result. We weren’t at the races in the first 15 minutes, and then the first half had quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing. We probably edged the second half but it wasn’t enough to win it. I think the two teams were fairly equal in terms of ability, but neither side were at their absolute best. We are certainly better than what we produced out on the pitch here.
“The character we showed, particularly when we went 1-0 down was a real positive. Managing to get a goal back again when we were 2-1 down, and then going on to create the best two chances was good to see, but we didn’t have enough dominance in our play to win it. When we had those dominant spells they still looked like they could score. Neither team were settling for a point.
“The slow start is unlike us, and we want to do better in that respect. The first goal we conceded was really poor on our part. Our performance lacked our normal energy levels and we didn’t break with enough numbers when we went forward. We were just short by five or ten per cent, and the two teams ended up cancelling each other out.
“Moving forward, we will be wanting to take the character we showed into our next run of matches as it showed that our players can compete with teams like Portsmouth even when we are not at our best. That level of consistency is what we are chasing, and when you have a team that are learning and developing you might not get that level of consistency that you would like, but ultimately if the boys can add that to their performances, that is what will help them improve.
“We now don’t play again until 9th January. It has been a funny season, and we have played a lot of games which has been draining. The players have had a hectic schedule in November and December so we will do a little bit of work with the players before they have a well-deserved break. Hopefully, they can come back fighting because we have some exciting games coming up in the FA Youth Cup, Youth Alliance Cup and some good league matches too!”
Exeter City Under-18s: Jack Arthur, Alfie Pond, Zeph Collins, Ellis Johnson, Max Clark, Jack Veale, Alex Moyse, Michael Lilley, Nelson Iseguan, Sonny Cox, Frank Lovett
Subs: Eli Collins, Toby Nevile, Charlie Hanson, Alfie Clark