Exeter City’s under-18s bounced back from last week’s defeat to Cheltenham with a convincing 4-1 home victory over Newport County under-18s on Saturday in the latest round of the Regional Merit League.
It was the Exiles who struck first on the half-hour mark when they converted from a sharp counter-attack forward, before City equalised in the 55th minute when Sonny Cox dribbled around four defenders before powering a strike in from 25 yards.
In a controlling spell for the Grecians, they turned the game around midway through the second half when Cox doubled his tally with a neat first-time effort, and the striker completed his hattrick eight minutes later when he finished off a wonderful team move.
Chad Gribble’s youngsters sealed the victory late on when Charlie Hanson netted with a long-range shot, meaning they have climbed towards the top of the league standings with just two Merit League fixtures remaining.
Focused on delivering a good performance this week following last Saturday’s setback, Exeter’s players showed a real determination during the opening stages of their clash with Newport courtesy of several dominating spells of possession.
Many patterns of the hosts’ play saw them progress through the thirds and create various half-chances that they were unlucky not to take. The first coming when Max Edgecombe delivered a good cross from the left flank for Hanson, however, the attacker failed to make any meaningful connection with his head.
The Devonians’ forward line looked extremely menacing, and Cox saw a strike well blocked, while moments later Cox’s ball in for Hanson proved to be just too powerful for his strike partner.
In response, Newport altered their shape after 25 minutes, which posed City a number of initial problems. The visitors made the most of that tactical switch by breaking the deadlock against the run of play. Edgecombe’s pass inside was read and cut out and led to a County break. After working the ball into a shooting area, a cool finish into the back of the net handed the Welshmen the lead.
With something to hold on to, the Exiles then sat a little deeper, inviting pressure onto them. The Grecians continued to dominate the possession statistics, and continuously found themselves in dangerous areas of the pitch, however, they were unable to create any clear-cut openings to test the opponent's goalkeeper before the break.
After half-time, Gribble’s men continued with their controlling spells but increased their intensity and tempo with the ball. Ten minutes into the second period, Exeter grabbed a deserved leveller in bizarre circumstances.
Eli Collins was sent crashing to the floor following a bad tackle, and rather than seeing the ball played out so he could receive medical attention, Newport opted to play on. Following a break down in possession, the home side then attacked, with the ball falling for Cox in the middle of the pitch. The striker dribbled his way past four defenders, before finding himself 25 yards away from goal, and he arrowed a shot that went in off of the underside of the crossbar that gave the opposing goalie no chance.
That goal injected life into the Devon club, and they really got on the front foot 11 minutes later when they took the lead for the first time.
Substitute Mitch Beardmore intercepted a pass in the centre of the pitch before he slid a neat through ball into the path of Cox. Cox showed the coolness of a deadly finisher by taking the chance first-time, guiding it past the stricken ‘keeper to make it 2-1.
With City in the ascendency, they doubled their advantage with the goal of the game on 74 minutes. Harrison King, who was introduced from the bench moments before, found Cox, who in turn laid the ball off to Collins. The late run of Jamie Nicholson was located with a precise pass, and when the ball came back across to Cox in front of goal, he converted from close range to finish off the intricate build-up play much to the delight of everyone in red and white.
The Grecians’ dominance continued into the latter stages. With 10 minutes remaining the points were made safe when the front two showed some quick thinking following a foul deep inside the Newport half. A quick free-kick that saw the Hanson and Cox combine saw the former let fly from outside the penalty area, and his effort flew past the away goalkeeper to hand his team a three-goal advantage, and round off a near-perfect day for Gribble and the rest of the ECFC coaching staff.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “It was a rather dominant performance. We weren’t quite as good in the first half as we were in the second, and their change of shape did pose us some problems. Their goal came from a misplaced pass, but you will sometimes get that from young players and we want Max Edgecombe to continue playing those passes because he is more than capable of doing that. These things happen and we wanted a response. We felt we did everything right in that first half, but we needed to play quicker, and once the speed in our play increased, the number of chances we had increased.
“Our first goal sparked us into life, and the second goal finished them off. What we had this week was an end product to our play. The score may have been 4-1, but overall the match didn’t have many chances, and our four goals have come from only six or seven opportunities. Newport were hard to break down at times, but our movement and our execution was much better than last week. It is certainly pleasing to get that missing bit from last week into our play this time around.
“It was a really positive day. There is usually something out of a match that you aren’t completely happy about but here we had a lot of good things. Not only was the team performance good, and the response from being a goal down, but the number of young players that we had on the pitch at the end. We finished with about six or seven Under-16s. We wanted to use this league format to expose the younger players to Under-18s football and we will continue to do that. What was nice to see was that they stood up to the challenge here and contributed. The substitutes impacted the game, and our speed and energy levels went up while our quality didn’t drop. It was great to see Jamie Nicholson play 30 minutes after a long time out injured, and watching his performance rounded the day off nicely.
“We play Bristol Rovers next, and we will stick with the process of exposing the younger players to more football at this level. Bit by bit we have drip-fed the younger players into this group, involving them with the training first of all, and then giving them minutes out on the pitch, and now you can see they belong in this group of players. We have finished this game so strong that myself and the coaching staff may have a bit of a selection headache for the next game, which is nice to have. Jamie [Nicholson] was excellent when he came on and Mitch Beardmore got two assists. All the players can take confidence from this week’s performance into that Bristol Rovers match, but we know it will be a different type of test for us.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Harry Lee, Ellis Johnson, Alfie Pond, Zeph Collins, Max Edgecombe, Jack Veale, Eli Collins, Gabriel Billington, Alfie Clark, Sonny Cox, Charlie Hanson
Subs: Andrew Sowden, Toby Nevile, Michael Lilley, Jamie Nicholson, Harrison King, Mitch Beardmore