Exeter City’s under-18s won their second game in just four days to continue their good form in the Youth Alliance South West division with a 4-1 home victory over Bristol Rovers under-18s.
The Gas started the stronger with a direct approach, and, despite City missing the two best chances inside the opening quarter, the visitors opened the scoring in the 22nd minute with a back-post finish.
Both teams enjoyed bright periods, but a strong finish to the first half saw the Grecians turn things around thanks to a quick-fire brace from Charlie Hanson.
Exeter’s youngsters doubled their lead nine minutes into the second period when Eli Collins’ corner was converted by Toby Nevile, before Edward James wrapped up the three points in the final minute when he headed in Zeph Collins’ free-kick.
Chad Gribble’s team were hoping to build momentum from their impressive midweek victory over league leaders AFC Bournemouth U18s with another convincing performance at the Cliff Hill Training Ground.
Rovers had beaten the Devonians in the reverse fixture back in October, and once again looked to make things difficult for the hosts.
From the first minute, the Pirates looked to play in a direct manner. High quality long passes forward, combined with a strong wind, pinned City back into their defensive third during the opening exchanges which made getting a foothold in the game rather difficult.
However, despite a number of factors against them, the Grecians fashioned out the game’s best chance 15 minutes in when Gabriel Billington picked up a loose ball in midfield. His through ball located Hanson, but the striker’s effort was well saved.
Moments later, a similar chance opened up when Billington once again gained possession in the middle third. His pass found Ellis Johnson out wide, and the full-back’s centre picked out Hanson, but the Gas goalkeeper denied the forward for the second time.
For the two Exeter chances on the break, the away side enjoyed more of the territory, which resulted in them taking the lead midway through the first half. Following a ball down the flank, Rovers found space to cross the ball to the far post, which was tapped in for 1-0.
The contest hung in the balance despite the opening score, and, as a result, parity was restored on 38 minutes. The ball was fed into Sonny Cox, who combined with his strike partner Hanson. The latter made it third time lucky when he slotted a shot under the Pirates’ goalie to make it a goal apiece.
That leveller settled Gribble’s men, and in the closing stages of the half, they managed to be competitive and win more loose balls in the middle of the pitch.
As a result, the home side looked more dangerous, and twice they threatened down the wings, however, the crosses from both Billington and Alfie Clark weren’t able to locate anyone in the centre to turn the ball in.
Three minutes before the interval, City did manage to find the right delivery from wide, and with it, came their second goal of the day. Some intricate build-up play saw Johnson combine with Billington, before the full-back found a pocket of space to whip a ball into a dangerous area. His cross found Hanson, who fired an effort across the ‘keeper and into the corner to give his team the lead for the first time.
After half-time, the Gas looked to respond and continued playing with the same approach that was largely successful during the first 45 minutes. However, with the wind against them, playing out became difficult for the visitors, and the Grecians were solid enough defensively to repel their opponents.
Exeter threatened themselves, and they increased their lead in the 54th minute through a set-piece routine. Eli Collins’ corner found the run of Nevile, and the defender won his aerial duel to send a header into the back of the net to give the Devonians a two-goal cushion.
The Bristol outfit mustered a few half-chances to keep themselves in the contest, but the game was largely controlled by Gribble’s team. On 70 minutes they were close to killing the game when Clark sent in a menacing cross from his side, however, no-one in the middle was able to apply the telling touch.
That only proved to be a sign of things to come, as the hosts sealed the victory with the final attack of the game. After City won themselves a free-kick, Zeph Collins drove the ball into the penalty area. James escaped his marker, and was first to the ball to divert it past the stricken shotstopper to make it 4-1.
The three points here ensured the Grecians remained third in the league standings, and are now unbeaten in five matches. They sit just a point behind Oxford United U18s, however, the Yellows do have three games in hand on Gribble’s men. Exeter’s youngsters play Swindon Town in their next fixture on Saturday 23rd January.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “Firstly, this was a completely different challenge to the one we had on Wednesday against AFC Bournemouth. It took us 20 minutes to get to grips with the match, picking up the loose balls in midfield and handling the different structure of the game, and we were probably a little naive and lacked a bit of nous. But once we got to grips with it all we got into a rhythm, and it was all about finding the moments to play. We probably deserved to be 1-0 down, but credit to the players for keeping it down to just 1-0.
“The wind didn’t seem as strong until the boys played out in it. Bristol Rovers had us properly pinned in and controlled the middle of the park. I think whichever team had the conditions ended up having the territory, and in the second half, we managed to get ourselves further up the pitch. One thing I’m extremely pleased about is the players figured out how to play the game out there, and they stood up to a different test.
“It was certainly useful this week that we could bring in some of the Under-16s group. That allowed us to bring on substitutes that were fresh, and Gabriel Billington, who started in midfield, really gave us some energy. Bristol Rovers had a way that they wanted to play, and we had to match that. That was probably the most senior type of football some of those younger players have faced in their careers so far. Several aspects of that game I believe they wouldn’t have experienced at Under-16s level. I’m really pleased we could expose our younger players to Under-18s football, and I’m really pleased they could figure out a type of way we wanted to play. It’s good that their learning process, by bringing them into the Under-18s setup, wasn’t detrimental to the way we played.
“We play Swindon Town next Saturday, who are another good opponent. We have a full week of training this time, and have the Under-16s once again that we can call upon. The ones we have used recently have stood up and been counted, and we will pick a team that we believe gives us the best chance of a positive performance. We will have a couple of players back from their absence this week, so we have plenty of competition for places, but what this past week has shown is that we, the coaches, trust the Under-16s, and the senior players do as well. I think it is a great insight into first-team football, because, irrespective of age, if the players can do the job you have asked of them, they have a chance of being picked.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Jack Arthur, Alfie Pond, Toby Neville, Zeph Collins, Ellis Johnson, Alfie Clark, Eli Collins, Michael Lilley, Gabriel Billington, Charlie Hanson, Sonny Cox
Subs: Andrew Sowden, Michael Beardmore, George Spencer, Joe O’Connor, Edward James