Despite taking the lead, Exeter City’s under-18s succumbed to their second defeat in the Youth Alliance South West division after an evenly matched contest with Portsmouth under-18s on Saturday.
After a goalless first half, Sonny Cox gave Chad Gribble’s side the lead in the 50th minute with a well-worked team goal.
But two goals in five minutes from Pompey turned the game around, and despite some late pressure from City, that brace was enough to hand Portsmouth the three points that took them above the Devonians in the league table.
Exeter’s youngsters travelled to the south coast with renewed optimism following last week’s bright performance, and they took that confidence into the opening stages of the contest.
The Grecians enjoyed a lot of possession which allowed them to get in promising positions in the Pompey half. A lot of the away side’s joy came down the flanks, however, they struggled to create any real opportunities due to a lack of quality in their final ball as well as some solid Portsmouth defending.
In the first quarter of the game, while Gribble’s men pushed bodies forward to find that breakthrough, their opponents threatened on the break. With both teams finding their own way to threaten each other’s backline, City came the closest to a goal when the clock neared the half-hour mark. Alfie Pond located Cox with a neat pass, however, the goalkeeper was able to smother the ball before any meaningful effort came.
The home side’s best chance unsurprisingly came from a counter-attack. After advancing down the wing, a neat cut back into the centre was repelled by a decisive touch from a scrambling Exeter defence.
The lack of a killing edge in both team's attacking play meant it remained scoreless when the half-time whistle blew. However, a fast restart from the Grecians saw them break the deadlock within five minutes into the second period
Toby Neville moved the ball on to Harry Ford. The winger brought Michael Lilley in to play, and the midfielder's precise square pass teed up Cox, who despatched his opportunity with aplomb to hand the visitors the lead.
Pompey mustered up a positive response to put Gribble’s men on the back foot, and their pressure was rewarded with an equaliser in the 60th minute.
City pumped a long forward, and despite winning the first aerial battle, Portsmouth won possession from the second duel and broke forward as a result. After working it into a wide position, a cross was sent deep into the penalty box, where the ball was turned in at the back post to bring the scores level.
The Hampshire outfit used the momentum shift to hand themselves a 2-1 advantage just five minutes later.
Following a throw-in deep inside the Exeter half, Pompey again centred the ball into a dangerous area, before a header was powered past Harry Lee into the back of the Grecians’ net.
That goal brought out a new lease of life from the away team, which in turn saw them carve open some half-chances for their attacking players.
Lilley saw two shots blocked by the stubborn Portsmouth defence, while Ford perhaps wasted his side's best chance when his rushed effort sailed over the crossbar.
With time running out, and the hosts happy to play long and direct, City created one more opportunity to find a leveller but Cox could only drag his strike wide of the goal. That meant Gribble and his players were left frustrated that they were unable to get anything from a game between two evenly matched teams when the full-time whistle eventually blew.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “It was a match that was decided on very fine margins. We played reasonably well in large parts, and in between both boxes we were as good, if not better than Portsmouth, but this game showed our players how important the work done in both penalty areas is.
“Particularly in the first half, we probably stayed on the ball longer than we needed to and we probably should have moved them about and wore them down a bit more. Because we didn’t they always look a threat on the break.
“When you play reasonably well but come away with nothing, these are the games that are the most horrible. But we have to make it count in the opponent’s box, and we have to be tough and more resilient in our own. My message of games coming down to the work done in both penalty areas has really shown here, and the players can see and learn from this. This match came down to five real chances, the two they took and the rest of them that fell our way. If we can take our chances, on another day we can get something from the game.
“There are lessons to take away from this match, but positives to pull from it too. We are still looking to put together that ‘complete performance’, but this isn’t a quick and easy process, and we will stick with it and look to improve for next time.”
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: Jack Arthur, Jamie Nicholson, Zeph Collins, Eli Collins, Charlie Hanson