Exeter City’s under-18s returned to competitive action following their mid-season break with an impressive 3-2 home victory over AFC Bournemouth under-18s in the Youth Alliance South West division on Wednesday.
Despite the Grecians starting proceedings brightly, the previously unbeaten league leaders gave themselves a two-goal advantage in the first half courtesy of goals from Jake Adams and Euan Pollock.
But Chad Gribble’s young side displayed real character after the break, and they levelled the scores early in the second period thanks to a quick-fire brace from Sonny Cox.
They completed the turnaround 13 minutes from time when Zeph Collins linked up with Michael Lilley, before the latter curled a superb effort beyond the dive of the goalkeeper to hand his team a well-deserved three points.
City welcomed Bournemouth to the Cliff Hill Training Ground hoping to put in a repeat performance from when the two teams met at St James Park in the FA Youth Cup earlier on in the season.
Exeter’s youngsters showed a real purpose in the early proceedings as they looked to get themselves on the front foot by pressing their opponents with aggression and energy.
For a team that prides themselves with their short passing game, Alan Connell’s side were forced to play in a more direct manner, which led to a turnover in possession at regular intervals, and the hosts mounting an attack of their own through a sharp counter.
The Grecians, however, lacked an end product to their attacking play, which ultimately kept the away side in the game. They ultimately paid the price as clever combination play in midfield allowed the Dorset club to make the breakthrough. On 17 minutes Pollock slipped through Adams, and the striker kept his cool to slot the ball past Harry Lee for 1-0.
That goal settled the Bournemouth players, but had the opposite effect on Gribble’s team. Some neat passing moves and switches of play displayed how much control the visitors had, and despite City’s defence appearing to have weathered the storm, Connell’s side doubled their lead in the 29th minute. A Matt Burgess pass over the top saw Pollock win the foot race, before the attacker struck home the one-on-one chance.
Despite a dominant end to the half from the visitors, Exeter began the second period with real positivity and began winning possession back towards the top end of the pitch.
Just a couple of minutes after the restart, the Devonians were handed a lifeline when Alfie Clark’s cross struck the hand of a defender resulting in the referee awarding a penalty. Sonny Cox took responsibility and he dispatched the spot-kick with aplomb to cut the deficit.
Belief and determination ran through all of the home players, and after 50 minutes they levelled the scores. After dispossessing the opposition in the final third, Cox got on the ball and wriggled free of the chasing defenders, before the forward fired home with his right foot to bring the scores level, and make it a magnificent start to the second period for the young Grecians.
At 2-2, the momentum and impetus was with the home side, and they gained a real sense of control of the game with Alex Moyes dictating the tempo in the heart of midfield.
Courtesy of the spring in their step, Gribble’s men scored again in the closing stages. Collins linked up with the ever-industrious Lilley, who turned with the ball to find a pocket of space. The playmaker bent a precise shot away from the visiting ‘keeper and into the bottom corner to make it 3-2 with just 13 minutes left to play.
The league leaders tried to muster a response during a frenetic last 10 minutes, which in turn saw City give possession away cheaply on numerous occasions. With the away side putting their opponents under all sorts of pressure, they won themselves a free-kick in a dangerous position, however, they were only able to divert the ball inches over Lee’s crossbar.
Connell’s side went close once again with another set-piece, but in the end, their efforts counted for nothing. The Devonians held on for the all-important three points that has lifted them to third in the Youth Alliance South West division standings, while inflicting Bournemouth to their first league defeat of the season.
Exeter City under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “We put out a slightly younger team as we had one or two missing for various reasons. Alfie Clark made his under-18s debut, and he and all the other players that came in really stepped up.
“At half-time we wanted to remove all doubt from the players’ minds and tell them that they were doing well despite conceding the two goals. We wanted to make the team see that the way we were playing was the way we were going to win the match, and I felt we took a backwards step when we went 1-0 down, and even more backwards step at 2-0. We probably gave Bournemouth too much respect, which in turn gave them that control, but I’m glad we went out in the second half and showed the right characteristics. We didn’t look beaten, and we never gave up.
“I’ve got to credit the under-16s coaches, because the younger players that came in showed the fight and determination that our players have displayed throughout this season. Those young players had to have it in their recent Floodlit Cup final against Crewe, and they showed it again here. Once you have done it once, you prove to yourself that you are capable. This game could have gone one of two ways, Bournemouth could have got four, five, or six goals today, or the players could have gone toe-to-toe with them, and found a way to get something from the game. Thankfully we had enough quality in that final third to turn it around.
“We intended to not give Bournemouth the time on the ball. They are a side that likes to pass it around, and it is hard work to play like we did to stop that. I’m happy that our younger players came in and implemented the strategy, and although Bournemouth might lead the possession stats, our players will be in front on the running stats. But the game required that, and I have to credit our boys because there were some tired legs and tired heads in that dressing room at half-time, but they stepped up and gave us another big 45-minutes.
“Our next game is against Bristol Rovers on Saturday. Although the win here gives us confidence and belief, it took a lot out of us, but we are ready to go again. I like the idea of two games within a week as that gives the players a true experience of what playing in league football is really like. The game will be a different test, and they are a good side, and one that frustrated and beat us earlier on in the season. But Saturday provides us with another great experience, and another great opportunity for the players to learn and improve.”
Exeter City under-18s: Harry Lee, Alfie Pond, Toby Neville, Zeph Collins, Eli Collins, Alex Moyse, Michael Lilley, Ellis Johnson, Alfie Clark, Sonny Cox, Frank Lovett
Subs: Jack Arthur, Gabriel Billington, Ed James, Nelson Iseguan, Charlie Hanson