Exeter City’s under-18s coach, Chad Gribble, commended his players’ character and will to win following his side’s 3-2 extra-time win over Cheltenham Town in the second round of the FA Youth Cup on Wednesday night.
In his post-match interview, Gribble said, “[It was a] great result. [The] performance has things we can improve on that’s for sure, but credit to the group because they found a way. They found a way last week, and they found a way to win another football match today, and you need those characteristics sometimes.”
In what became a five-goal thriller at St James Park, City’s youngsters found themselves up against it from the very beginning. The wind and rain were a major talking point from the first period, and, at times, the contest hinged on who would play the weather conditions the better. Gribble admitted it became a stern test for his team.
“[The] weather was tough. It was relentless and it was continuous. The ball was at our backline and we had to stay in the game and deal with those, and we found a moment to get a goal and we felt going into the second half, if those conditions would settle and we had the weather in our favour, we might be able to go on and win the game, and we were so close in normal time, but, [we] had to do it the hard way again.”
The standing water on the playing surface made possession play difficult at times, with both teams finding more luck early on from more of a direct approach. The visitors used that to their advantage and began the game quickly, by netting in just the second minute. The Grecians defence missed their opportunities to clear their lines near halfway which allowed the Robins to get in behind the Exeter backline. Charging through the middle was Town forward Callum Ebanks, who ran through to the edge of the box before finishing his one-on-one chance past Jack Arthur to make it 1-0.
Top quality play was hard to come by early on, but 10 minutes later the hosts were inches away from levelling matters in spectacular style when Michael Lilley hit the crossbar from 20-yards. That piece of action kicked life into the City ranks, and they levelled the contest in the next attack. Ellis Johnson sent a sumptuous cross from the right into the middle. In amongst a congested box, the ball was met by Sonny Cox, and the forward headed past Jake Parsisson in the Cheltenham goal to restore parity after a quarter of an hour.
Both teams traded good opportunities as the match grew older, and in the early moments of the second half, Frank Lovett saw a goal ruled out for offside. However eventually, the Grecians did take the lead when Cox scored his second of the match in the 74th minute. Lovett’s header fell to the feet of Cox, who took a fantastic touch to get around his man, before the striker curled a shot into the bottom corner to give his side the advantage.
Both teams made changes as the game reached the final stages, and it was the away side who took full advantage with four minutes remaining. Gribble’s men initially dealt with a Town corner, however, the ball fell to Ebanks, and he turned sharply and fired the ball goalwards to force the ball in via a deflection to level the scores and force extra-time.
Nelson Iseguan played an integral role for the hosts in the additional 30 minutes, and he was certainly twice unlucky to see his influence not result in Exeter’s youngsters retaking the lead in the early stages of the extra period.
The winger found himself in an advanced area down the left flank, before his centre located substitute Joe Wragg, whose shot bounced off the top of the crossbar, before Iseguan himself was presented with a wonderful opportunity in the 96th minute when Jack Veale teed up the wide-man, but Iseguan could only send his toe-poke somehow wide of the far upright.
Gribble lauded the winger’s overall play on the night. “[There were] some great deliveries. He [Iseguan] showed a bit of frustration with that, but Nelson has just got to stay positive in those moments, because when he got past his full-back and he got into good areas there were some great deliveries and we looked a threat off of those crosses all night I thought.”
Despite squandering some golden opportunities however, the Grecians continued to push forward, and in the 103rd minute, they finally came up with their third goal of the tie from an unlikely source. Iseguan saw his cross initially cleared, but only as far as Ellis Johnson outside the penalty box. The right-back cut inside and jinked his way to shooting distance before placing the ball into the corner for 3-2.
In reaction to his team’s third goal, Gribble was quick to highlight how big a part the full-back played in the attacking play of his team. “Ellis has got great energy. He’s right on the front foot and we’ve asked him to play a little bit higher and go and support attacks. Not only was it a great winner, it was [also] a great cross for Sonny’s first goal as well, so, he influenced the game in the attacking half of the pitch today, and managed to get us the winner in the end.”
Johnson’s dramatic strike late on meant City’s youngsters put their name in the hat for the competition’s third round draw, and Gribble admitted that he was looking forward to the prospect of facing a different kind of opponent in the next round of the FA Youth Cu
“[The competition is] regional to begin with, and I’m not going to lie, to face Plymouth for the third time in three years was disappointing. Although we love a derby game, and we came through that round, it’s been the same tie three years on the bounce and this [match against Cheltenham] is another regional game with a team we play in our league, so fingers crossed it is someone different, and an opportunity for us to test ourselves against big opposition.”
Exeter City’s Under-18s are now awaiting the completion of the FA Youth Cup’s second-round fixtures before the consequential third round draw. The FA have instructed that all second-round ties must be played by Saturday 21 November 2020, and further information about City’s third-round tie will be announced in due course.