Exeter City’s Under-18s returned to league action with a dramatic and eventful 3-3 draw away to Forest Green Rovers under-18s on Saturday.
A slow start saw the Grecians go two goals behind within the first quarter of the match when they were punished by some quick counter-attacking football by the home side.
But a good response saw City restore parity before half-time with Jack Veale’s penalty and Joe Wragg’s curling effort giving the Devonians a lifeline.
Alfie Pond was red-carded midway through the second period resulting in Rovers netting their third goal in the 80th minute. But against the odds, Exeter’s youngsters salvaged a draw with five minutes remaining thanks to Frank Lovett rounding the goalkeeper to steal a point for his team.
High on confidence following their impressive FA Youth Cup win over AFC Bournemouth, Chad Gribble’s side were hoping to take that performance into another tough fixture.
The Grecians have often made fast starts to their games this year, regularly getting on the front-foot early to dictate the early proceedings, however, it was the Gloucestershire outfit who began Saturday’s contest the livelier.
With just six minutes on the clock, FGR gave themselves the lead after City gave some cheap possession away. The hosts worked the ball to just outside the 18-yard box in swift fashion, before shooting the ball past Jack Arthur to give themselves the early initiative.
Rovers continued to enjoy long spells of possession, with the away side struggling to put together any decent sequences. The better Exeter moments came from breaks forward after winning back possession, but they were never able to create anything clear-cut for their forwards.
The Gloucestershire club doubled their lead midway through the first half after a breakdown in possession from Gribble’s men once again. A counter forward by FGR saw them take full advantage to make it 2-0, much to the dismay of everyone in red and white.
But that goal kicked life into the Grecians' ranks, and they began to enjoy more of the ball as they looked for a way back into the contest.
In the 36th minute, the visitors reduced the deficit following a combination down the right flank between Ellis Johnson and Lovett. The latter drove infield and entered the penalty area before the winger was tripped and a penalty was awarded. Veale stepped up and converted the spot-kick to inject some belief back into City players.
Exeter started to look a real threat down both sides, and eight minutes later they levelled the scores with an attack down the left. Max Clark moved the ball onto Wragg, who cut inside to get within shooting distance of the goal. The winger shaped a tremendous effort beyond the reach of the home goalkeeper to make it 2-2 moments before the half-time whistle sounded.
Gribble’s players looked to use the momentum they generated at the back end of the first 45 minutes to continue on the front foot, however, their opponents came out of the changing rooms with added aggression, which led to a more competitive game on the pitch.
The Gloucestershire side looked dangerous when they passed the ball quickly, with their target man in attack continually troubling the Grecians’ backline with his physicality and movement.
That same player played a huge role in proceedings on 70 minutes when he got goal side of Pond before he tangled with him, much to the annoyance of the centre-back. Pond’s actions meant the referee sent off the defender, which left City with plenty to do if they were to take any points away from the contest.
Following the dismissal, FGR got back on top and controlled much of the next 10 minutes. Exeter managed to survive with their backs against the wall, but eventually, the home team used their man advantage to make it 3-2 in the 80th minute. After a corner was initially defended, the ball was recycled and a free header sent the ball beyond Arthur and into the back of the net.
The visitor had to reshape and find a way to create one last chance that would allow them to take home a draw. The substitutes started to play more of a role, and with just five minutes remaining, they mustered a golden opportunity that Lovett wasn’t going to miss.
Michael Lilley did well to regain possession before he played the ball to Sonny Cox. The replacement turned and sent a delicious 30-yard through pass for Lovett to run on to. Keeping his cool at the vital moment, Lovett dribbled around the despairing lunge of the goalkeeper and tucked the ball into an empty net to steal a point for his team in the most extraordinary fashion.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “I think emotion is the right word. We were still on a high from Wednesday’s FA Youth Cup match, and this game here was going to go one of two ways for us. Either we were going to continue being on a high from all that adrenaline, or we would be emotionally drained from the AFC Bournemouth match. Unfortunately, it was the latter. We were up against it from minute one, and probably off the back of going 2-0 down, we found a level. With 11 players on the pitch we might’ve gone on to win it, but emotions got the better of us on the day.
“We knew they would start quickly. They seem to have a tendency to start quickly, and they hit us like a steam train. We had a freshness to our group, as we brought a few players in, but the team we put out on the pitch were more than capable of winning that game.
“We never looked beaten. We had to approach the match different when we went down to 10 men, and it was hard for the players. But we didn’t give up. We just need to perform better not just on the pitch, but emotionally too.
“I think the lesson the players need to take from the game is that our most important game is always the next one, and I don’t think we valued this match as much as the FA Youth Cup match. We had a great game against on Bournemouth, but you can’t ride off of that for too long. You’ve got to back that up with another victory. But we’ve put a line under this one, and everything that needed to be said was left in the changing room on Saturday. We play Yeovil Town on Saturday which will be another tough game. It is a tough place to go and we lost there last season. Their league position doesn’t reflect their true ability, and the players know they will have to be at their best to get a positive result.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Jack Arthur, Alfie Pond, Zeph Collins, Ellis Johnson, Max Clark, Jack Veale, Alex Moyse, Eli Collins, Joe Wragg, Charlie Hanson, Frank Lovett
Subs: Andrew Sowden, Toby Nevile, Michael Lilley, Nelson Iseguan, Sonny Cox