A relentless second-half performance from Exeter City’s under-18s saw them advance into the next round of the Youth Alliance Cup with a 4-1 away victory over Forest Green Rovers under-18s on Wednesday afternoon.
Despite a goalless first period, the Grecians broke the deadlock soon after the restart through Harry Ford, before Jack Veale netted a free-kick 10 minutes later.
A quick response from Rovers saw them halve the deficit, before both teams were reduced to 10 men with 30 minutes still left to play.
The two-goal cushion was re-established when Sonny Cox scored in the 63rd minute, before a late strike from Nelson Iseguan sealed the win, along with City’s place in the next round of the competition.
It was the Gloucestershire outfit who controlled much of the play in the opening stages of the contest, with Exeter’s youngsters particularly struggling to apply any real pressure onto the ball. With the hosts enjoying plenty of possession, Chad Gribble’s men shaped up with a defensive approach, before springing a few breaks of their own.
Iseguan surged forward on 20 minutes but wasn’t able to break through the Forest Green defence, while Sonny Cox was left isolated when he led two further counter-attacks for his team.
The home side did a good job of containing their opponents, and they came closest to breaking the deadlock during the last 15 minutes of the first period.
Jack Arthur made a super save with his foot to keep it scoreless, before he was called upon again just before the interval when a shot from the edge of the box was routinely stopped.
In complete contrast to the first 45 minutes, City came out for the second half with real belief, and within seconds of the restart, they stamped their authority on the game with a goal through Ford.
The winger received the ball on the right flank, before he cut inside and fired a shot into the far corner to give the away side the advantage.
The Devonians continued to apply pressure on to the opposition, and after a winning a free-kick 20 yards out in the 55th minute, they were able to double their lead. Jack Veale stepped up and wrong-footed the FGR goalkeeper to score directly from the set-piece.
Rovers responded however, and they brought themselves back into the game just a few minutes later after working the ball into the centre. A shot on the turn wrong-footed Arthur via a deflection before it rolled into the back of the net to make it 2-1.
Moments after, the hosts continued to pressurise the Grecians, and following a scramble inside the City penalty area, arguments amongst both sets of players ensued. Arthur was sent off for his involvement, along with a Forest Green player, resulting in a 10-a-side contest for the final half an hour.
The dismissals however seemed to add extra focus the Exeter ranks, and in the 63rd minute, they were able to score their third of the afternoon. Cox charged the hosts’ ‘keeper down forcing him into a misplaced clearance. Max Clark picked up possession before he pulled the ball back to Cox, and he fired home to make it 3-1.
With 13 minutes remaining, Gribble’s team added a fourth goal to seal the victory. In a fast-flowing move from right to left, Ford located Iseguan with a neat through pass, before the wide midfielder slipped the ball under the FGR shotstopper to make it 4-1, and book the Devon side’s place in the next round.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “I thought we looked uncertain in some aspects of the way we wanted to approach the game. The players were cautious rather than getting on the front foot as we have been before. One thing that Forest Green Rovers can do is pass the ball well, and they can cut through you if you don’t get it right, so I have to credit the players for staying in a shape and stopping them from scoring. You can only withstand that pressure for so long, and we managed to do that up until half-time. We gave the boys a message and tweaked a few things during the break, and credit to the boys for listening and applying those changes in the second half.
“The team’s mindset changed, and after we cleared up the uncertainty, we gave them some belief. The first goal couldn’t have come at a better time. That gave the players more belief, and probably rattled Forest Green, because we had managed to turn it right around.
“In a perfect world, all of our players don’t get involved in the second-half incident that led to the red cards. Jack Arthur was caught up in the heat of it, but others were fortunate to still be on the pitch. We have to address that as that isn’t us and that isn’t who I want us to be. The positive to come from that flashpoint is that it didn’t rattle us. I feel for Jamie Nicholson as we had to sacrifice him to change our team tactically and he was one of the bright sparks in the first period, but it is a team game, and the rest of the players responded well when Harry Lee was introduced from the bench.
“I would have liked it if we were more positive with our play in the first half, but I was quite pleased with how the players read the situation. It showed for the first time the boys understanding the importance of football and play in both boxes. We weren’t able to get a foothold in the game, so rather than try to still play and end up going two or three goals down, they remained in the game and stopped them from scoring. The response in the second half though was fantastic.
"This result has given us a nice cup run now and an extra game to look forward too. But next we play a league match against Oxford United at home on Saturday. We want to take our mindset from this game into that, no matter what style, shape or tactics we decide to play with. The players would have learnt about themselves here, and they should go into Saturday’s game with real belief. We played well against Portsmouth, and despite an indifferent first-half performance here, we were very good in the second-half, so hopefully we can take that momentum into our game with Oxford.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Jack Arthur, Alfie Pond, Toby Neville, Ellis Johnson, Max Clark, Michael Lilley, Jack Veale, Nelson Iseguan, Harry Ford, Jamie Nicholson, Sonny Cox
Subs: Harry Lee, Zeph Collins, Eli Collins, Charlie Hanson, Frank Lovett