Exeter City’s under-18s endured a frustrating day in Gloucestershire on Saturday as they suffered a 2-1 defeat to Cheltenham Town under-18s in the Regional Merit League.
In a bright opening, the Robins scored the first goal of the game in contentious fashion when goalkeeper Jack Arthur appeared to have been fouled in the build up, with Town nonchalantly tapping the ball home into an unguarded goal to make the breakthrough.
The hosts’ deep backline made things difficult for Chad Gribble’s side, and with 30 minutes on the clock, the Cheltenham advantage was doubled when a long ball led to a defensive mix-up, and the Robins' attack taking full advantage.
City grabbed a goal back just before half-time when Jack Veale’s free-kick went in via a defender, however, despite controlling much of the play in the second period, the Grecians were unable to find another way through and came away from the match with an unfortunate defeat.
Exeter’s youngsters travelled up the M5 full of optimism following two excellent showings in their recent cup ties, before enjoying a week off to regroup and prepare for what would be another tough game against a physical opponent.
That buoyant mood was evident inside the opening exchanges when the away side had lengthy spells of possession and made frequent visits into the attacking half.
That offensive pressure led to the Devon outfit winning a free-kick in a dangerous position, however, following a bit of a scramble, the ball was eventually cleared away by the Robins' defence.
However, for all of the attacking intent by the Gribble’s men, their progress was severely hampered in the fourth minute. A long clearance caught Toby Nevile out, however, despite the ball bouncing dangerously, Arthur reached the ball first to parry it away. Despite Arthur’s bravery, following his vital touch, the ‘keeper collided with an opposing striker, and, as a result, found himself out of the game. In turn, the home team slid the ball into the empty net and made it 1-0.
After taking the lead, Town opted to sit in their solid defensive structure and invite City onto them. The Grecians had a good amount of ball, but the stubborn backline meant they only created two real opportunities to restore parity; The first through Charlie Hanson, however, the forward’s hesitation saw the chance slip away, before the visitor’s best move saw Veale, Frank Lovett and Ellis Johnson combine magnificently down the right flank, however, Johnson’s cross was met by the Cheltenham goalie before anybody in an Exeter jersey could convert.
Again, however, down the other end, the Devonians were undone by another piece of direct play on the half-hour mark. A diagonal ball led to confusion between Johnson and Nevile. The Robins quickly seized onto the mistake and converted the resulting one-on-one to give themselves a two-goal cushion.
Gribble’s players, however, dusted themselves down quickly and responded positively. Ten minutes later they brought themselves back into the game when Alfie Clark’s good play led to free-kick which Veale took charge of. The captain whipped in a delicious ball, and despite a Town defender rising highest, he could only head the ball into his own goal to make it 2-1 and hand the momentum to the away side going into the break.
City began the second half with real purpose to their play, sending more bodies forward as they sought a leveller. That however led to them being more open at the back and susceptible to counter-attacks by the opposition.
Hanson saw a shot on the turn comfortably stopped, while Clark came within inches of scoring when he cut inside and let fly, however, his curling effort whistled just past the far upright.
The hosts looked threatening when they broke down the wings, and twice Arthur rescued his side with outstanding interventions to keep it at a three-goal game.
With 15 minutes remaining, Cheltenham again came forward when they worked a long ball into a shooting position. The resulting effort on goal came from distance, however, Arthur again needed to make a vital fingertip save to turn the ball over the crossbar.
As time ran out, the Grecians created half an opening for Lovett when a surge down the right side saw the winger shoot a half-volley wide. But, clear-cut chances were at a premium, and despite having extended periods of possession, Exeter’s players failed to really test the Robins shot-stopper, which meant it remained 2-1 when the referee eventually blew for full-time, handing the Devonians their first defeat of this one-off Regional Merit League.
ECFC’s under-18s play again next weekend when they face Newport County under-18s at home in the EFL Youth Alliance Regional Merit League on Saturday.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “It is certainly frustrating when you play teams like that. They were physical and direct, and if you give them an early goal as we did, that makes things even easier for them. They were able to sit in, and has something to hold on to, which give them less reason to come forward.
“We are very disappointed with the referee’s decision in the lead up to the first goal, but we need to defend the direct ball better, and if we did end up dealing with that first goal, that would have only been a warning sign for us. To concede again through that means is disappointing, but the boys know that because they are more than capable of dealing with that. And when you get chances you have got to make the most of them. It comes down to the work in both boxes once again.
“The goals didn’t rattle us, and we didn’t change the way we played. We wanted to match their physicality, but find the moments to get the ball down and play. The early goal meant they changed the way they played as they became less concerned with chasing the ball. They were well drilled and well organised defensively, and there was no space for us to play. They were able to gain some sort of control with the early goal, and were able to dictate the way the football match was played. Ultimately, we had to keep it at 0-0 for longer.
“There were parts of our performance we were not pleased with, but some bits that we really liked. Callum Ebanks in attack for them is a good player, and their midfield is dynamic, so that game was really good for our young players. That match was like real football. I’ve seen games like that at first-team level, so this was a good experience and a good chance for our boys to learn. This match really showed that the players need to work on their individual moments outside of our training sessions, because the more time they can dedicate to their individual craft, the more it will help them during certain moments in a game.
“Newport will provide us with a different test. They have had a change in coaching staff so may play in a different style, but that is what is great about this format of matches. There are lots of good learning opportunities for the players. This group are a good honest bunch, and it can be easy to think you’ve cracked something. At Gillingham, they dealt with the long balls well, but there will always be someone better, and Callum Ebanks proved that. Thinking you’ve fully cracked something can’t be your mentality, so you have to keep practising, and that’s what we’ll look to do ahead of the Newport game.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Jack Arthur, Ellis Johnson, Alfie Pond, Toby Nevile, Zeph Collins, Michael Lilley, Jack Veale, Eli Collins, Alfie Clark, Frank Lovett, Charlie Hanson
Subs: Andrew Sowden, Edward James, Max Edgecombe, Jamie Nicholson, Gabriel Billington