Exeter City’s under-18s showed more encouraging signs from their two most recent friendly matches, as they prepare themselves for the 2020/21 Youth Alliance season.
The young Grecians may have come away with defeats in both, but the character, resilience and competitiveness they displayed provided evidence that real progress being made by the group, which should stand them in good stead for what is ahead.
City’s youth team played Buckland Athletic on August 28, the second men’s team they faced during their pre-season schedule. In what was an extremely good test for the Exeter players, the tempo was quick throughout, and Chad Gribble’s men more than matched their senior counterparts during the opening half an hour.
But Buckland took the lead soon after, when a cross from the left led to a scramble inside the penalty area. As a result, the ball was bundled into the net to break the deadlock.
The Grecians responded well, with Nelson Iseguan striking the crossbar, but it was Athletic who scored the second goal of the game, when, from a short corner, the ball was forced home from close range.
However, just before half-time City scored. Charlie Hanson found Frank Lovett, and the forward rolled his shot under the goalkeeper to half the deficit.
In the second half, a fast start from Buckland saw them restore their two-goal lead when a long free-kick caught the Exeter defence out. The senior side reacted first and volleyed home to make it 3-1.
Gribble’s men quickly settled, and enjoyed long spells of possession, however, their youthfulness showed when they lost the physical battles they encountered in the final third. The Grecians did grab another goal back late on though when Joe Wragg tapped in at the back post.
After the game, Gribble explained that the match provided a genuine test for his players.
“It was good, competitive game,” said Gribble. “They were a strong opponent who matched us in terms of ability but had the physicality on us. But we were much improved in comparison to the last men’s team we played and what I like about the performance was that we didn’t crumble under the pressure they put us under. It was a more physical and mature kind of performance from the boys.”
City’s youngsters then travelled to Luton Town last weekend for another tough fixture. Despite that, the Devonians began aggressively in their approach and started the game on top.
Both Lovett and Sonny Cox both squandered early half-chances for the visitors, but a change of style from the Hatters altered the flow of the game after 15 minutes. The direct tactics pinned the Grecians inside their own defensive third, and they eventually conceded when a poor clearance was punished with a goal.
After half-time, Gribble’s men kept defending from deep, which allowed Luton to control proceedings. With a quarter of an hour remaining, the lead was doubled when an unmarked midfield runner ghosted into a dangerous position to make it 2-0.
That goal sparked life into the away team, and with their best spell in the game, they pulled a goal back. In their first venture forward since their early dominance, Exeter’s Iseguan was first to connect to a dangerous cross to restore some hope.
However, with City more bodies sent forward in the search for a leveller, Town were able to kill off the game with a goal on the counter-attack to make it 3-1 at the end.
Gribble admitted the match was a good chance to see where his players were in comparison to another club’s youth team.
“We were just 10% off their game here,” said Gribble. “They were 10% fitter, 10% stronger, quicker to the ball, and ruthless. They’ve had a good pre-season against some good teams because of the lockdown, and I feel in a week or fortnights time, we would be hitting those levels, and take those chances too.
“It was pretty even in patches, but those key moments around the pitch, and in both boxes, are the areas we need to improve on. But that is just a sign of where we are in our pre-season right now.
“Thankfully we have another friendly match next weekend away at Swansea City. I’m delighted we have a game against another team who play football with speed and intensity. As a group, we have certainly made progress over the course of this pre-season, but the players have got to keep going, so we can make sure we will be ready when we play Yeovil Town in our first Youth Alliance league match on September 19."