Exeter City’s Under-18s triumphed in their second-round tie against Cheltenham Town U18s in the FA Youth Cup in what was a five-goal thriller at St James Park on Wednesday night.
The Robins opened the scoring just two minutes into the contest through Callum Ebanks, before Sonny Cox replied for the Grecians with a fine header after a quarter of an hour.
Cox netted his second with 16 minutes remaining with a precise effort to make it 2-1, but City were pegged back in the 86th minute when Ebanks’ shot found the back of the net via a deflection to force extra-time.
Both teams pressed for another goal in the extra 30 minutes, but it was the hosts who eventually found the winner when Ellis Johnson cut in and applied the neatest of finishes in the 103rd minute to put Exeter’s name into the hat for round three.
Following their victory over Plymouth Argyle in the last round, Chad Gribble’s men were hoping to take their strong form into a wet and windy contest against a Cheltenham Town side who had just knocked out Tuffley Rovers from the competition.
However, City were up against it from the start. The conditions made possession play difficult, and it was the visitors who made the quicker start.
In just the second minute, the Grecians backline 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 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.
Exeter’s youngsters tried to rectify their disaster start immediately. Minutes after the conceded effort, Sonny Cox cut in from the right-wing before his shot went high and wide of the Cheltenham goal.
Top quality was hard to come by at times, but 10 minutes later the hosts were inches away from levelling matters when Michael Lilley hit the crossbar from 20-yards out following a scramble inside the penalty area. The rebound was eventually cleared, but that piece of action kicked life into the City ranks, resulting in a leveller arriving in the next attack.
Ellis Johnson received the ball down the right flank before he sent a sumptuous cross into the middle. In amongst a congested box, the ball was met by Sonny Cox, and the attacker headed past the goalkeeper to restore parity in the 15th minute.
If the match failed to reach top gear, the rain most certainly did. The relentless showers appeared to have no sign of stopping and the standing water on the surface soon resulted in the majority of passes being played long and in the air.
In the 26th minute, Brennan Dennis-Barrett spurned a shooting opportunity for the away side, but much of the good build-up play belonged to Gribble’s side.
As the game ticked over the half-hour mark, Exeter created their best opportunity since the equaliser. Iseguan's header put Cox in against goalkeeper Jake Parsisson, but the attacker’s low shot was comfortably kept out.
Cox was proving to be a real menace, and he had another chance moments later following good work down the left. Iseguan’s cross was met by the striker, but his header could only find the hands of the 'keeper.
Cheltenham remained a threat though, and they forced Jack Arthur into a great save seven minutes before half-time when Felix Miles’ free-kick looked to be sneaking in, only for Arthur to tip the shot over.
Charlie Dashfield had the half’s final chance in injury time when his volley went wide, but the gruelling first-half came to a close with the teams still level.
Denness-Barrett saw an early second-half shot blocked, but it was City’s youngsters who were unfortunate not to score the third goal of the game on 48 minutes. Cox surged forward with a mazy dribble, before his precise through ball appeared to send Frank Lovett through one-on-one. The attacker placed the ball past Parsisson, but the assistant referee flagged Lovett as offside and the goal was disallowed.
Lovett and Iseguan were a constant handful for the Cheltenham backline, and the latter led a counter-attack for the hosts on the hour mark. His run led to Max Clark crossing for Cox, but the striker’s header was comfortably stopped.
In response, the visitors mustered up opportunities of their own. Miles first saw a low shot straight denied by Arthur, before Ebanks volleyed wide.
With the tie rather at a deadlock, the teams traded chances midway through the second period. Iseguan tried his luck with a header, while Town saw a penalty appeal waved away by referee Phillip Eddie when Ebanks went down in the area.
Cox sent a half-volley agonisingly over on 71 minutes, while moments after, Iseguan was denied by a superb block following a searching pass from Michael Lilley.
That proved to just be a sign of things to come however with Exeter giving themselves a 2-1 lead 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 when they won themselves a corner with four minutes remaining. The inswinging delivery was initially dealt with, however, the ball fell to Ebanks, and he turned sharply and fired the ball goalwards to force the ball in via a deflection and bring the teams level.
Despite the setback, the Grecians looked for a winner before time was up. Iseguan fluffed one chance after rounding the ‘keeper, but as the game went into injury time, City created their best chance through substitute Joe Wragg. The replacement danced his way into the box from the right-hand side before his shot trickled agonisingly past the far post.
It meant that when full-time sounded, the scores remained at 2-2, and extra-time was once again needed to find a winner.
In the opening minute of the additional period, Miles sent a low drive just wide for the Robins, however, the better chance fell to City a minute later. Iseguan found himself in an advanced area down the left flank, before his centre located Wragg. His miscued shot bounced off the top of the crossbar and over to keep it at 2-2.
The match became a little stretched, and Ebanks was the next to try his luck. Arthur, however, got down well and pushed the powerful strike away from goal.
Exeter’s youngsters were putting together some lovely passages of play. In the 96th minute, Iseguan was presented with a wonderful opportunity when the ball worked its way from the right to the left. Jack Veale teed up the winger, but he could only send his toe-poke somehow wide of the far upright.
The Grecians continued to push forward however, and in the 103rd minute, they eventually came up with their third goal of the tie from an unlikely source. Iseguan saw his cross initially cleared, but only as far as Johnson outside the penalty box. The full-back cut inside and jinked his way to shooting distance before placing the ball into the corner for 3-2.
Good combination play in the 109th minute between Iseguan and Veale saw Lilley test Parsisson with a low drive, before Cheltenham pushed men forward with time running out. As a result, in the 115th minute, Arthur had to be at his best to tip Rio Spencer’s shot around the post, before the shot-stopper denied Liam Atwell moments later. Despite Town piling on the pressure for a leveller, their efforts came to no avail as a combination of good game management and stubborn defending meant the Exeter backline kept it at a five-goal game, and ended up taking home the victory when the referee eventually called time
Exeter City Under-18s: Jack Arthur, Alfie Pond, Zeph Collins, Ellis Johnson, Max Clark, Alex Moyse, Michael Lilley, Jack Veale, Nelson Iseguan, Sonny Cox, Frank Lovett
Subs: Andrew Sowden, Eli Collins, Toby Neville, Charlie Hanson, Joe Wragg, Harrison King