Exeter City’s under-18s' bright start to the season stuttered on Saturday as they suffered a narrow 2-1 defeat at Bristol Rovers under-18s.
The Grecians were unable to take advantage of their first-half control, with the Gas opening the scoring midway through the second period.
The lead was doubled in the 77th minute, and despite Jack Veale pulling a goal back with a late penalty, Chad Gribble’s side were unable to find a leveller to take a point back home to Devon.
Exeter’s youngsters began proceedings on top, and their intentions were clear 30 seconds into the contest when they created a half-chance which they were just unable to convert.
Rovers sat off the visitors during the opening 20 minutes, and in turn, City enjoyed plenty of possession in promising areas of the pitch.
Sonny Cox saw a shot well saved, while moments later Alfie Pond was unable to get a crucial touch from a corner following a near-post flick-on.
But despite their dominance, the away side had to settle for a goalless first 45 minutes. The Grecians, however, remained in control following the restart as they continued their search for a breakthrough.
The visitors came out of their shape a little, but the better chances still fell the way of Gribble’s men.
Charlie Hanson was introduced from the bench and became an instant threat for the Pirates’ defence as City began to play off the forward and get into dangerous positions.
The away side then created their best opportunity down the left flank when Nelson Iseguan was slipped through, however, the winger was only able to put his one-on-one wide of the target.
Minutes later, the Gas broke the deadlock against the run of play.
Following a long clearance that fell on the edge of the Exeter penalty box, Rovers won themselves a free-kick in a threatening position. In the 65th minute, the ball was fired past goalkeeper Harry Lee direct from the set-piece to hand the home team the initiative.
Despite the conceded effort, Gribble’s side continued to press forward determined to not let the goal rattle them. More half-chances were created, with substitute Joe Wragg coming the closest to an equaliser when his effort struck the crossbar and bounced on the goalline.
With City pushing forward, they were pegged back once again with 13 minutes remaining. The Bristol outfit punished their opponents and doubled their advantage with a sucker-punch goal on the counter-attack.
The visitors tried to muster a response, and their efforts were finally rewarded in the 89th minute.
Off the back of a wide free-kick, Toby Neville was pushed in his attempts to reach the ball, resulting in the referee awarding a penalty. Veale took responsibility and slotted home the spot-kick to bring his side back into the game.
That goal sparked new hope into the Exeter ranks, and in injury time there were shouts for another penalty following some promising build-up play. Iseguan looked to link up with striker Frank Lovett, who was nudged over just before he made contact with the ball. The appeals were waved away by the officials, resulting in Gribble and his squad succumbing to their first defeat of the season.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “I feel we have come away with a defeat because we didn’t take advantage of our dominance. We could have been 2-0 up at half-time. I’ve said it before, but the result of a match comes down to what happens in both penalty boxes, and that was again the case here.
“Despite losing, we had plenty of positives in our play, and that’s what makes this defeat so frustrating. We solved the problems in front of us and got into good areas in the final third. The game plan went to plan, and we played some fantastic football at times, but we that golden moment was missing from our play. This match just reiterated the point we make to boys about needing to practise their craft every day. When it comes down to those moments, that is what ultimately gets you a career in football. You’ve got to be relied upon to deliver when you are a professional.
“The two goals we conceded were poor, very avoidable, and we can learn a lesson from them. I can’t take credit away from Bristol Rovers for the way they played. We were unable to finish our chances and we were always susceptible to their counter-attacks. They made their game plan work, but ultimately we made mistakes in the lead up to both goals. If we can find a way to combine some of the quality football from this match with our fighting spirit from the Plymouth Argyle game, we will give ourselves a better chance of delivering a complete performance.
“We are certainly getting there as a squad though, there is plenty of encouragement, but the sooner we can tie it all together the better. We play Cheltenham Town next, who are always a creative side. The focus for us this week will remain on ourselves though. We will want to get on the front foot and dictate things, and whatever Cheltenham bring, we have got to be ready for it.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Harry Lee, Alfie Pond, Toby Neville, Ellis Johnson, Max Clark, Michael Lilley, Jack Veale, Nelson Iseguan, Harry Ford, Sonny Cox, Frank Lovett
Subs: Gabriel Billington, Jamie Nicholson, Zeph Collins, Charlie Hanson, Joe Wragg