Exeter City’s Under-18s suffered a 5-1 defeat to the hands of AFC Bournemouth U18s in their first match of this season’s Youth Alliance South West division on Friday.
In a spirited first-half display, the Grecians failed to capitalise on several clear-cut chances, before they fell behind at the midpoint of the second period courtesy of a defensive mix up.
The away side doubled their lead shortly after, and it became 3-0 in the 84th minute, however, George Spencer restored hope when he scored with a minute remaining.
The Cherries however scored from a set-piece as the clock ticked into injury time, before the Dorset club sealed the win in the 95th minute with a long-range effort, leaving the hosts hurt and frustrated that they were unable to make more of the opportunities that came their way.
Despite all the disruption the Exeter camp endured in the build-up to what became their season opener, City’s youngsters started proceedings brightly, and gained territory by playing football in the right areas of the pitch.
ECFC Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble, instructed his team to press aggressively, which rather disrupted the Bournemouth rhythm, and resulted in the Devonians creating the best three chances of the contest.
The first came after a turnover in possession from Eli Collins, who then moved the ball on to Charlie Hanson. The forward however could only drag his one-on-one chance wide.
As the half went on, Hanson then became the provider as his cross located Mitch Beardmore in a dangerous position. Beardmore’s shot looked goal bound, however, one defender managed to scramble back and clear the ball off the line to keep things goalless.
The visitors' threat came when they looked to get in behind the Grecians’ backline with a long diagonal ball, however, that threat was well dealt with, particularly by Harrison King, who kept his composure despite facing one of the Cherries' most lively attackers.
Just before half-time, the home team created another golden opportunity. Again, from another energetic press, Exeter managed to win the ball back when Hanson latched onto a loose backpass. The striker however fired the ball off-target once again, meaning both teams went into the break level.
Gribble’s side sustained their attacking pressure shortly after the restart, however, they were unable to turn that supremacy into anything, as they were unable to unlock their opponent’s defence to create another opening.
There was a sense that Bournemouth started to settle as some members of the Devon outfit began to tire as the clock reached the hour mark. And the deadlock was broken just five minutes later.
A communication breakdown allowed the away team to complete another diagonal pass. A ricochet meant Grecians goalkeeper, Andrew Sowden, had little time to clear his lines, and, as a result, saw his kick cannon into the rushing attacker. The ball deflected off the away forward and into the goal to make it 1-0 to take the wind right out of the Exeter sails.
The dramatic shift in momentum was emphasised when the score became 2-0 just a couple of minutes later. The Cherries whipped in a dangerous corner, and one Dorset player lost his marker and rose highest at the back post to nod the ball in to double the advantage.
Gribble’s men however displayed a bit of fight as they got their game going again with their regains in the middle of the park. Hanson went close to pulling one goal back in the 70th minute, while Beardmore again provided some good service with his passes into the penalty area.
But despite the re-energised Grecians, it was Bournemouth who netted the third of the afternoon when their centre-back dribbled his way down the right flank. He slid a through pass into the path of the winger, who squared the ball nicely to his teammate to tap in at the far post on 84 minutes.
With just a minute of regulation time remaining, the hosts did get on the scoresheet when substitute, Spencer, got on the end of a loose backpass. The striker rounded the goalie and finished calmly into an empty net to make it 3-1.
However, the three-goal cushion was quickly restored when the away side scored from a wide free-kick. The cross hung in the air before a free header saw Sowden beaten for the fourth time.
The scoring was completed in the fifth minute of added time. One Cherries player cut in from the left wing, and curled a beautiful effort into the top corner, to end their day in style, and leave Exeter's youth side with plenty to learn from ahead of their next outing.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “First and foremost, I must say that 5-1 doesn’t reflect the effort the players put in during that first hour. The way that they worked and executed the game plan was fantastic, but we can’t afford to create three clear cut chances without scoring a goal. Add to that the half-chances we had inside the first 10 minutes of the second half, we should’ve been a few goals up by the time we made the mistake for the first goal.
“What disappointed the coaching staff was the last half hour. We aren’t quite in the physical condition we need to be in to play how we want. We’ve had 10 days off from training, with some boys training with the Under-16s, but nothing quite replicates the Under-18s level of football. Despite everything we have been through during pre-season, we have done everything we can, but not being as strong, fit, or sharp as Bournemouth hurt us, and all we had to go on was the boys’ effort, but ultimately we ran out of steam.
“We were missing some senior figures. Alfie Pond played just 30 minutes on his comeback from injury, and when he went off we lost a bit more leadership, but the younger players need to learn to step up because we aren’t always going to have Alfie. We crumbled in the last 15 minutes, and it was a disappointing end, but the efforts and chances we had earlier in the game really need to be taken.
“We were as prepared as we could have been. We said before the game that after the 90 minutes, we will know where we are at. They were at full strength, and we were missing a few, but that isn’t an excuse, because the players we put out there are capable of competing. We were just 30% behind our opponents. They were fitter and stronger, and marginally better in every department.
“We are going to have to learn on the job, and keep building the players’ fitness and sharpness. It isn’t a situation we want to be in, but we are, and we will try and make the best of a bad situation. Credit to Bournemouth because they had five chances and scored five goals. Football matches come down to what happens in both boxes.
“This is all a great learning opportunity for the players because you can learn more when you lose than when you win. It was a bit of an eye-opener for the boys, and what it showed them was that off-pitch development is just as important as the on-field stuff. We aren’t going to solve the issues overnight, but that defeat certainly hurt the players, and as I’ve said before, this group love to learn, so I have no doubt they will go away and work hard to get better for next time. We want to use Bournemouth as our benchmark because we want to continue to go toe-to-toe with that level of opponent all the time.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Harrison King, Alfie Pond, Zeph Collins, Max Edgecombe, Michael Lilley, Tom Dean, Eli Collins, Mitch Beardmore, Charlie Hanson, Jamie Nicholson
Subs: Joe O’Connor, Lewis McNab, Alfie Clark, George Spencer, Sam Joce