George Spencer’s four-goal haul helped Exeter City’s Under-18s end 2021 with an eventful 4-4 draw against Oxford United U18s on Saturday in the Youth Alliance South West division.
The scoring started after just ten minutes when Spencer’s low finish broke the deadlock, however, eight minutes later a converted one-on-one opportunity brought the teams level.
Spencer slid in another midway through the first half, and despite the U’s levelling just before the interval, a fast start to the second period saw the striker complete his hattrick when he scored from the edge of the penalty box.
The Grecians made it 4-2 thanks to Spencer once again, however, two United goals in two minutes near the hour mark brought the scores level once again, meaning the points were shared, leaving City second in the league standings as they enter their winter break.
Exeter’s youngsters came into their last game before Christmas on a four-match winning streak, and they were hoping to maintain their unbeaten run at the expense of a talented Oxford side.
The opening few minutes at the Cliff Hill Training Ground were evenly matched, with both sides getting the ball down and playing some lovely football, however, creating openings proved to be difficult against the well-drilled defences.
Despite the away side spurning the contest’s first two half-chances, it was City who broke the deadlock with their first foray at goal in the 10th minute. As the ball moved from right to left, Alfie Clark, on his return from injury, dribbled inside and fed the ball to Spencer, who managed to swivel and find the bottom corner in one quick motion to hand the Devon outfit the early advantage.
The hosts looked good for their lead, but a moment of inaccuracy led to Oxford levelling the scores on 18 minutes. A loose header in center of the pitch was collected by one U’s midfielder. He in turn slipped in a teammate, who outpaced Gabriel Billington before coolly finishing past Harry Lee to make it a goal apiece.
But the two teams weren’t level for long as just a few moments later, Chad Gribble’s men re-established their lead. A long ball forward was retrieved by Charlie Hanson, before the attacker showed tremendous strength protecting possession and holding up play. Hanson’s neat turn and low cross allowed Spencer to slide into the six-yard box and divert the ball past the United goalkeeper to make it 2-1.
In response, both sides traded speculative efforts, but with the end of the half on the horizon, the Grecians were unfortunate not to take the lead when Hanson cut out a loose pass from the visitors; The forward looked to play Harrison King in, but a wayward pass couldn't send the right-back through on goal.
Both teams flashed efforts across goal in the final five minutes of an action-packed first period, but on the stroke of half-time, the game was tied. The U’s worked the ball down the right flank before a cut back into the middle found their left winger, who finished high into the back of the net to close out a frenetic 45 minutes.
With a sense of more goals were to come in the second half, the clock barely showed 30 seconds after the restart before Spencer added the match’s fifth goal of the game. King received a ball down the right side, before passing it to Spencer 18-yards from goal. The attacker arrowed a precise finish past the dive of the Oxford shot-stopper and into the bottom corner to complete his hattrick and give Exeter the upper hand once again.
With City in the ascendancy, they almost doubled their lead just a few minutes later when King’s mazy run got him clear of any defenders, and in on goal. The right-back aimed low, but a big stop from the United ‘keeper kept it at 3-2.
On 54 minutes, however, it did become a six-goal affair with the Devonians asserting their dominance with a fourth goal. King was involved once again as he got the ball down the right, before delivering a powerful cross into the middle. The goalie pushed the ball away, but straight into the path of Spencer, who demonstrated his poaching ability by quickly smashing the ball just under the crossbar to double the home side’s cushion.
Despite the setback, just five minutes later, the U’s pulled a goal back after some neat individual play. After some intricate play through midfield, one visiting forward managed to cut inside from the left wing and dribble his way past several tackles before placing the ball inside the far post to make it 4-3.
The momentum had shifted, and in the 61st minute, things were all-square once again. The officials awarded Oxford a free-kick 20 yards out, and their left-back curled a lovely effort over the wall and past Lee to make it 4-4 much to the delight of the United coaching staff and players.
With the wind now truly in their sails, the visitors smelt blood and enjoyed their brightest spell following the equaliser. Two chances within the space of a minute came quickly, and after squandering a glorious one v one, another U’s player fired a long-range effort just over.
Both teams turned to their benches in the hope that one of their replacements would be able to find an inspiring moment to win their respective clubs the game. But, in truth, the substitutions rather led to the two sides cancelling each other out, and things rather died down up until the final five minutes.
Precise passing from Gribble’s men saw Zeph Collins and Mitch Beardmore combine, before the ball reached Hanson. The attacker fired an effort towards goal but it was repelled and cleared away by some brave defending.
That may have been the Grecians’ best hope of nicking a winner, but no clearer opening came than up at the other end of the pitch for the away team deep into injury time. Oxford whipped a threatening free-kick into the danger area, before a glancing header was sent inches past the far post when it appeared easier to score.
It meant that when full-time sounded just seconds later, the lively, eight-goal affair ended with the two talented teams sharing the points, with everyone coming away from the contest delighted with the previous 90 minutes they just witnessed.
The point here meant that the young Grecians climbed to second in the league table, level on points AFC Bournemouth u18s, but are three goals worse off on goal difference. Gribble and his players will now rest and recover during their mid-season break, but they return to action on 8th January, when they travel to Dorset to play the Cherries in what could be another enthralling match-up between the two clubs.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble:
“We had a disappointed group at full time, and that included staff and players. It wasn’t for the large parts of the performance, as we played well enough in spells, and did well enough to score four goals against a good Oxford side, but in a way, it felt like a loss the way the scoring went in the game. We had the lead two times in the first half, and held a two-goal cushion at one stage. There were lots of good moments, but there were things at the other end of the pitch that we need to tidy up.
“We were playing in shape we haven’t used often, and for large parts, we were pleased with what the players did in that system. When there is a change in your shape, the goals are usually the last thing to come, but we showed good instincts, and demonstrated good habits, and I thought it was evident we could apply those traits in multiple systems.
“Defensively, we were drawn into their kind of game at times and caught in a physical fight, and if you do that against Oxford, there is only one winner. I thought we weren’t quite up to speed in the way we defended our half and defensive third. One of the goals we let in we didn’t track the runner, there was one where we were untidy in possession and one came from a cheap free-kick and the wall breaks. So all bar one of the goals we conceded were preventable, whereas our goals were outstanding and well worked.
“George Spencer took his goals outstandingly well. He’s been patient and unlucky this season, so he deserved his opportunity and certainly grabbed it with both hands. Gabriel Billington was playing out of position, and he was solid defensively and his distribution was excellent. Mitch Beardmore played through the middle and was all-action, and was involved in lots of good moments, and then Alfie Clark, who had not played since his broken ankle was brought straight back to start having not played for so long and played 60 minutes, so credit has to go to him for staying fit during his injury lay-off.
“Being towards the top of the league table is nice, especially after the start we had, and the troubles we had around COVID. We had a sit down with the players at that stage, and they trusted in what we were asking from them. And now this is the reward for their improvement. It is always nice to win matches, but there is a bigger picture here. There have been lots of really good individual performances, but we are trying to get the best out of all of the players and improve them all for their futures.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Harry Lee, Zeph Collins, Toby Nevile, Gabriel Billington, Harrison King, Alfie Clark, Michael Lilley, Eli Collins, Mitch Beardmore, Charlie Hanson, George Spencer
Subs: Joe O’Connor, Tom Dean