Exeter City’s under-18s suffered a 2-1 loss to AFC Bournemouth under-18s in their final away match of the Youth Alliance South West division on Saturday.
The Cherries broke the deadlock at the midpoint of the first period when a low shot went through a crowded penalty area and into the bottom corner, before the lead was doubled eight minutes later through a powerful long-range strike.
A brighter second half from City saw them cut the deficit in the 48th minute when Charlie Hanson reacted first to a loose ball and headed an effort past the stricken goalkeeper.
But despite being in control of large periods afterwards, Chad Gribble’s youngsters were unable to find another goal past a resolute home defence, and ultimately left Dorchester Town's Avenue Stadium with a narrow defeat.
The Grecians travelled to Dorset in relatively strong form but faced a Bournemouth side who topped the league standings and were high in confidence.
The opening stages were evenly split, with the Cherries enjoying some bright spells of possession, which was well matched by a solid backline from the away team. After soaking up moments of sustained pressure, Exeter broke forward with a few counter-attacks of their own, however, they were unable to properly test the hosts’ goalie.
Following a balanced start, Bournemouth started to dictate proceedings after the 10-minute mark. The big pitch saw the Cherries use the ball efficiently to put their opponents on the back foot. City found themselves pinned in for long periods, with possession given up far too easily for Gribble’s liking.
Ultimately his team conceded as a result of the home side’s dominance when Bournemouth’s Marcus Daws drifted inside and fired a rasping low drive beyond Harry Lee in the Grecians’ goal to make it 1-0 after 20 minutes.
Following the opener, the Cherries kept up their control and attacking pressure, and despite their opponents looking to spring counters forward down the flanks, scored the afternoon’s second goal in spectacular fashion.
Bournemouth worked the ball into the middle of the pitch, where Matt Burgess tried his luck from 25-yards out. His shot fizzed past Lee and into the back of the net to hand the Cherries a two-goal advantage 28 minutes in.
The home side remained in the ascendency, however, Exeter’s youngsters did enjoy a positive final 10 minutes to the first half as they got on the ball more and found themselves further up the pitch. Despite being two goals down, City went into the interval with plenty of encouragement.
The visitors continued to demonstrate their upbeat attitude early in the second period, and it didn’t take long for them to put the opposition under pressure when they registered a goal of their own.
Michael Lilley won possession back in midfield before the ball ricocheted up for an aerial duel. With the Bournemouth goalie committed to taking the high ball, Hanson showed his sharp instincts by rising highest and sending his header home to make it 2-1.
Gribble’s men took charge of the contest as the momentum swung in their favour. However, despite seeing plenty of the ball in the hosts’ half, they weren’t able to conjure up any clear-cut openings for their attacking players.
However, the Grecians believed they did find an equaliser in the 65th minute from a set-piece. Jack Veale’s corner located Edward James, who got up well to nod a header beyond the reach of the Bournemouth shot-stopper, but, the goal was disallowed for an alleged push moments before to the dismay of every member of the Exeter contingent.
Despite the Devonians having the upper hand, the Cherries enjoyed surges forward of their own in the second period, and Lee had to be at his best to deny the home side and keep it at a three-goal game.
With time running out, the visitors continued to advance in their search for a leveller, but a resilient defensive structure from Bournemouth meant a lot of their build-up play was forced, and their ‘keeper was relatively untroubled.
It meant that at full-time, City succumbed to their first defeat to the Cherries this season, and just their second loss since the turn of the year. Gribble’s men remain third in the table, with just next week’s home fixture against Forest Green Rovers under-18s left to play.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “I’m disappointed with our first half. I felt that it wasn’t us during that period, and we didn’t commit to what was needed. As a group, we were a bit of a nothing team, and by not committing, we were trying to do a bit of everything which wasn’t done very well. We gave them too much control, and perhaps too much respect.
“In the second half, we were much better. It was a funny half-time team talk because it was a bit like the last game against Bournemouth, when they again led at half-time by two goals. Our message to the players was similar to that day. The boys knew they had a chance because they had come back against them, and others, before, and we’ve made a habit of doing things the hard way at times this season. Unfortunately, we didn’t quite have enough. With time running out, perhaps the players lacked that bit of game management because a point would have been a fair result.
“Harry Lee is still young, and made an outstanding save in the second period, and Ed James is getting better week-by-week. Zeph Collins played in two positions and was influential in both. What we are seeing now is the first-years really stepping up, and along with the Under-16s showing who they are, the players have given themselves a nice platform with their second-half performance here.
“This was a step in the right direction. Despite having a different collective, we are making progress bit-by-bit. We play Forest Green Rovers next, and it would be nice to finish the season with a victory. But we know how good they are. We’ve had two good matches with them already this season, and we are expecting another difficult game, so we have got to be ready for another good challenge for our young players.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Harry Lee, Ellis Johnson, Edward James, Toby Nevile, Zeph Collins, Michael Lilley, Jack Veale, Eli Collins, Nelson Iseguan, Charlie Hanson, Frank Lovett
Subs: Andrew Sowden, Alfie Clark, Gabriel Billington