Exeter City’s under-18s suffered the heartbreak of a penalty shoot-out defeat, and were consequently knocked out in the semi-finals of the southern section of the Youth Alliance Cup by Gillingham under-18s on Saturday.
The Grecians took the lead 10 minutes into the second half after Zeph Collins was bundled over inside the 18-yard box, and Jack Veale converted the subsequent spot-kick.
However the visitors responded well, and after winning a free-kick in a promising position, Bailey Akehurst delivered for Ronnie Nelson, who headed the ball into the top corner to level terms.
The game remained pretty tight up until the final whistle, and with the tie going straight to penalties, it was the Gills who kept their composure, winning 3-1 in the shoot-out, where they will now face Peterborough United in the area final next weekend.
The Kent side opted to play with the strong wind in the first period, and thanks to their long and direct style, put the hosts’ backline under immense pressure right from kick-off.
Despite the high quantity of aerial balls inside the opening quarter of an hour, the City defence did a fine job of halting the Gillingham attacks, without their teammates really making the most of the turnovers in possession.
After spending much of the first 15 minutes on the back foot, Chad Gribble’s men began to gain some sort of control, with Charlie Hanson always posing a threat as he looked after the ball superbly despite being isolated at times.
The first big opportunity came midway through the half when the away side won themselves a free-kick in an advanced area. Nelson tried his luck with a header, but Jack Arthur produced a wonderful athletic stop to turn the ball past the post.
Exeter managed to settle down afterwards and enjoyed more of the ball, however a combination of Gills’ energy, and a lack of speed with the ball made for a scrappy end to the first 45 minutes, and the two teams went into the break goalless.
The Grecians began the second half brightly, putting their opponents under pressure during a bright 10 minute period.
After spending the majority of the spell inside Gillingham territory, they were rewarded for their attacking pressure when Collins took a tumble after some contact in the penalty area during a City corner. The referee gave the home side a spot-kick, and Veale led by example by slotting home his attempt to break the deadlock in the 55th minute.
The resulting kick-off allowed Gills to get into the opposition half and build an attack. They won themselves a free-kick following a foul by Ellis Johnson, and a superb delivery was nodded in by Nelson to restore parity almost instantaneously.
Following the goal, the contest became rather messy, and clear-cut chances were at a premium. Despite now having the conditions in their favour, Gribble’s men became a bit forceful with possession, while Gillingham’s route one style led to some scrappy phases of play.
Eli Collins was introduced from the Exeter bench, and instantly gave his team some quality in the middle of the park with his calm head, while Alfie Clark created a small opening following some positive play down the left flank, however, his effort on goal was blocked and smothered away.
In the latter stages of the match, Hanson and Frank Lovett also created half-chances for themselves, however, they never really tested Charlie Walker in the visitors’ goal.
That meant that when the referee did blow for full-time, the contest was to be decided by the lottery of penalty kicks. Despite the Grecians going first and netting their first shot, Gillingham quickly levelled, and from then on seized the initiative as their ‘keeper, Walker, proved to be the real hero thanks to three fantastic saves. With Gills converting all of their attempts, it was they who progressed to the next round, knocking City’s youngsters out in the process.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “Penalties are a real lottery. Credit has to go to their goalkeeper for saving three of our four kicks. The attempts weren’t fantastic, but they weren’t poor, and he’s managed to pick the right side and made himself big. We practise penalties in training, but that replicate the pressures of a cup semi-final. There was no frustration from the players or staff from our side, and the players will only be better for it. Yes, we are disappointed not to make the final, but if the players go through a shoot-out situation again, they’ll be better prepared for it.
“It ended up being a really even game, but there weren’t many shots from either team. Jack Arthur made one outstanding save, but he didn’t do too much else, and it was the same with their ‘keeper.
“Gillingham ended up being big and physical, which is what we expected, and I am pleased with how we stood up to that. We just didn’t have the quality in possession on the day, and we ended up playing into their hands really.
“With the conditions being as windy as they were, we did what we needed to do in the first half, and we defended for our lives at times. The first 15 minutes of the second half we were really good, but when we conceded, that changed our focus and our emotions took over. The fact that they were a physical opponent probably acted as a distraction at times. We did have some positive spells in the game, but it