Exeter City’s Under-18s made it four straight wins in the Youth Alliance South West division as they recorded a 4-1 victory away at Bristol Rovers on Saturday.
Toby Nevile got things going for City in the 16th minute when he headed in Eli Collins’ corner, before Ed James scored in similar fashion six minutes before half-time.
The Pirates pulled one back early in the second period, however, Sonny Cox restored the two-goal lead when he converted from Mitch Beardmore’s centre.
Cox sealed the points with 18 minutes remaining, and despite both teams receiving a red card in the final 10 minutes, the Grecians comfortably held on to record three more points that has lifted them up to second in the league standings.
Having only met just a few weeks ago at the Cliff Hill Training Ground, Exeter’s youngsters travelled up the M5 on Saturday to face a Rovers team looking to avenge the 2-1 defeat they suffered down in Devon.
ECFC’s U18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble, sent his team out with the message to get on the front foot early. In reaction, his players produced a fast start which resulted in plenty of ball in the opponent's half. Despite passages of scrappy play, they exerted constant spells of pressure onto the hosts by winning back possession on numerous occasions.
The away side managed to create some half-chances through set-piece routines, and their attacking pressure was finally rewarded with a goal after 16 minutes. Collins whipped in a delicious corner kick, and Nevile rose highest to divert the ball past the stricken Gas goalkeeper to make it 1-0.
The goal helped settle the game down, and in response, the Pirates looked more dangerous going forward. With both teams enjoying productive moments, the contest became stretched, with City looking particularly threatening down both flanks as they made some precise forward passes and exploited the space behind the opposition defence several times.
Those bright moments of build-up play led to the second goal of the day when the Grecians won themselves another corner on 39 minutes. Collins delivered another pinpoint cross, and Ed James managed to get his head on the ball first to send it into the back of the net to double the Exeter advantage.
In the remaining minutes leading up to half-time, the Devon outfit dominated possession and controlled proceedings, while up at the other end, their opponents rarely threatened Harry Lee’s goal.
After the break, however, Rovers switched their shape and came out more aggressively as they searched for a way back into the game. Their bright start saw them create the best chance of the early second half exchanges when an effort fired into the side netting.
Just a few moments later the Bristol club forced Lee into a save, as the pressure continued to build.
And in the 51st minute, they managed to half the deficit after winning a free-kick in a wide position. An accurate ball into the penalty box saw the home team reach the ball first, and a header was sent past Lee to make it 2-1.
That proved to be a wake-up call for Gribble’s men, and their reply to the setback was instant, as they forced a corner from the resulting kick-off. Beardmore delivered the resulting corner into the danger zone, and on hand, Cox powered a header home to quickly wipe out the Gas goal his team had just conceded.
That third goal from the away side gave them the platform to kick on and seal the points. City had worked out how to play against the opposition adjustments, and they regained the upper hand as they kicked into overdrive looking for ways to increase their cushion.
With the clock on 72 minutes, the score did become 4-1 courtesy of some composed play from Cox. An under-hit switch of play from the Pirates saw the striker pounce on possession. He dribbled his way into shooting position, before rounding the goalkeeper in cool fashion and tapping the ball in to double his own goal tally and give his team a three-goal lead.
With the Grecians looking good for their lead, they remained largely in control of the game up until the 80th minute when a 22-man brawl ended up breaking out. Despite most of the arguments being fairly innocuous, the officials decided that one Rovers player, alongside Ed James, were far too aggressive with their actions, and they were both dismissed for violent conduct meaning the final moments would be a 10-a-side affair.
It was the Bristolians who were the better team during the last 10 minutes, and they were extremely unlucky not to pull another goal back when they surged forward during a threatening counter-attack and hit the post. The hosts in fact should have scored a little later when a ball into the middle wasn’t converted from close-range.
But with no further goals, it meant that it remained a five-goal game, with Exeter taking home the vital three points which they merited courtesy of their several dominating periods during the 90 minutes. They move level on points with league-leaders AFC Bournemouth U18s, however, are below the Cherries due to their inferior goal difference.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “We made a reasonable start to the game. We knew they were going to try and start quickly because it worked well for them when they played us just a few weeks ago. So we were looking to counteract that with a fast start ourselves, and that was probably why we lacked a bit of quality in our play, but then the first goal settled us down.
“They started the second half better than us, which put us on the backfoot. That has happened three out of three times when we’ve played them, so we need to be better and brighter in picking up on any changes the opposition makes at half-time. Once we rode the storm, we got control again and got into some good areas of the pitch and created some good goalscoring opportunities.
“We’ve been really good with our set-pieces over the course of the season, and the only time it has let us down happened to be in the recent FA Youth Cup defeat to Bournemouth. The deliveries from Eli Collins and Mitch Beardmore have been outstanding, but there has to be a willingness from the players too, and we have got guys who enjoy attacking the ball. I am really pleased we have boys who buy into that part of the game.
“Sonny Cox has been outstanding in the last two weeks. He scored a penalty against Portsmouth, and could’ve got a few more because he played well that day, and he’s managed to score again here. It is nice to see his effort and hard work rewarded with goals, and a big well done has to go to him for his recent performances.
"We play Oxford United U18s next week which is always a tough game. We will be without Ed James now due to suspension, and he has been fantastic in the last three or four games. He’s had to fight hard to develop parts of his game that were perhaps the reason he was out of the team before, so we are going to miss him, but we will have to find a solution without him. Oxford are a strong side. We got a really positive result against them last time, but we will have to be at our best again when we play them on Saturday.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Harry Lee, Zeph Collins, Toby Nevile, Ed James, Harrison King, Max Edgecombe, Gabriel Billington, Eli Collins, Mitch Beardmore, Sonny Cox, A.Trialist
Subs: Joe O’Connor, Michael Lilley, George Spencer