Exeter City’s under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble, admitted how proud he was of his players after they went down 2-1 after extra-time to Leicester City’s under-18s in the fourth round of the FA Youth Cup.
Speaking in his interview after the game, Gribble stated, “[We’re] gutted first and foremost. There’s a group in there [in the dressing room] who have worked their socks off tonight and they’re gutted as well. I think we ran them close. We went toe to toe with them for a long period of time. We’ve taken the game to extra-time. We’ve fought back and equalised so I really can’t ask any more of that group of players in there, and they’re gutted because they ran them so close. But that was a real tight game, and we were within a moment of progressing to the next round all the way throughout so yeah we are disappointed, but so incredibly proud of the efforts tonight of the players.”
In a highly entertaining, yet gripping cup tie, the opening period saw both sides try and put together some intricate passages of build-up play without really threatening the scores.
Exeter centre-back, Toby Nevile, had a header blocked 11 minutes in, while Sonny Cox’s mazy run a few minutes later really had the Foxes backline retreating.
It was the away team who enjoyed the majority of possession, and their variety of passing always had their attacking players looking to get in behind the Grecians’ defence. Tawanda Maswanhise’s run down the left flank brought about penalty appeals when he fell inside the 18-yard box, while Terell Pennant saw his one-on-one opportunity well saved by goalkeeper Jack Arthur.
As the half grew older, both teams traded chances from set-pieces. But it was Leicester who went into the break on top after brothers Kian and Terell Pennant both went close with efforts in the closing stages of the first period.
With both teams still looking to break the deadlock, the first chance of the second half came from hosts. Cox’s neat footwork saw him turn smartly 20 yards out, however his low strike only brought a routine stop from Foxes ‘keeper Kelechi Chibueze.
Exeter’s Alex Moyse was the next to try his luck, while the closest the visitors came to scoring was through Alfie Pond’s deflection at the near post when he dealt with a low cross. From the resulting corner, Kian Pennant headed a wild attempt off-target.
The two sides continued to share chances. Midway through the second 45 period, Cox whistled a shot just past the post, while seven minutes later Oliver Ewing’s long-range strike went narrowly over.
The Grecians’ attacking intentions were clear however when Gribble decided to introduce Charlie Hanson from the bench. But despite throwing on another striker, the opening goal almost came from an unlikely source after 79 minutes when Zeph Collins arrowed an effort through a crowded penalty box, but only into the side netting.
Back came Leicester, and the ever-bright Wanya Marcel Madivadua displayed a real turn of pace when he dribbled his way past a few challenges before he powered a shot over the crossbar.
It was the hosts who really stepped up the ante in the final few minutes, however, and they came close to nicking it in regular time on two occasions when Nelson Iseguan’s shot from outside of the box just missed before Collins again shot narrowly wide seconds before the final whistle.
With matters still goalless, it meant that Exeter’s youngsters entered extra-time for the third time in the FA Youth Cup this season. But they began the additional period on the front foot when Michael Lilley forced Chibueze into a smart stop.
However, seven minutes into extra time it was the Foxes who opened the scoring when their first real quality delivery into the box was duly converted. Maswanhise’s surge on the left side led to him sending a wicked ball towards the back post, where Marcel Madivadua rose highest to make it 1-0 despite Arthur’s best efforts.
In his post-match comments, Gribble acknowledged that fatigue started to play a role when his team conceded the opening score.
“I think all goals are disappointing to concede, and if you watch every goal back you can break down every moment and say they’re preventable. It comes at a time where we’ve worked incredibly hard, the legs are tired, and maybe we’re just not in the position to defend the cross that we need to be in and they capitalised on that moment.”
But in spite of the setback, Gribble’s men responded well. Iseguan was a thorn in the side of the away defence, and several darts down the wing really had the opponents backtracking.
The Grecians’ positive reply was deservedly rewarded with an equaliser two minutes before half-time in extra time. Iseguan’s long throw was initially dealt with by the Leicester centre-backs, however, Lilley collected the loose ball on the edge of the area and fired a strike into the bottom corner to level the tie.
After the game, Gribble said it was the players’ belief that helped his team grab a deserved equaliser.
“If there was anyone who didn’t believe that this group was capable of going toe to toe with them [Leicester City] tonight it wasn’t the group of lads that are sat in there. We went into this game, and they very much went into this game believing they were capable of winning it and rightly so. They’ve knocked out some good opponents on the way, and they proved tonight they’re capable of going toe to toe with a top football club, and top side so they deserved to get back in it but that’s just the energy and belief in the group.”
Following the goal, the momentum was truly with the home team, and they unlocked the defence with some beautiful football just a few moments later when Hanson played the role of target man to perfection. The substitutes’ lay off located the run of Veale, who in turn played a square pass to Lilley. The scorer of the match’s leveller shot for goal once again, but he was to be denied by Chibueze’s unconvincing stop.
Both teams continued to push for a winner at the start of the second period of extra-time. But it was the visitors that took full advantage of the extra space due to the tiring legs out on display. Bright play down the left saw Johnny Yfeko link up with Maswanhise. The latter sent a floated cross into the danger area and Kian Pennant headed in from close range to hand his team the lead in the 108th minute.
In reaction to the goal, Gribble accepted that the fine margins of a close game just went the wrong way for his team in the crucial moments.
“We got the equaliser, we felt we had a bit of momentum, and wanted to try and keep that momentum and went after the game. We had nothing to lose tonight, we had absolutely nothing to lose. They were the favourites, we were the underdogs, and we got ourselves within 15 minutes of winning a football match. At some point, we were always going to come out and be a little bit more aggressive, but you leave yourself open, and they exploited that really well so again credit to them because those are the fine moments in the game that dictate whether you win or lose, and it went in their favour tonight because they found that moment to take advantage of the situation that they were in.”
In the closing moments, despite Gribble ushering his team forward in the hope of grabbing a late equaliser to send the tie to penalties, Exeter’s youngsters ultimately ran out of time, and it was the Foxes who were left celebrating when the referee blew for full-time.
Following the match, Gribble explained how he had mixed emotions from the previous 120 minutes of football he had witnessed.
“They’re a good opponent, which is part of the reason why we set the team up the way we set the team up tonight. But I thought equally we got ourselves into some good areas of the pitch and had some narrow misses. We could have easily crumbled when they went one goal ahead. So that just shows the togetherness, the fight, the spirit of that group and that’s part of the reason why they’ve managed to get themselves into the fourth round in the first place. We managed to get it back to 1-1 and didn’t just have enough. Football is always going to come down to fine margins when it's a tight game, and that's exactly what it was tonight. It was a closely fought game. That's a long amount of time tonight where they had the ball for a lot of the football match and they wore us down so we’ve got to give them credit but I’m so proud that we ran a team of that stature that close.
“I think it [the match] shows that this Academy is continuing to go from strength to strength. We’ve seen it in the previous rounds, and we now got our opportunity which we wanted which was to test ourselves against one of the best. We’ve done that, and I’m so pleased that we ran them so close. There’s a group of players in there now that are absolutely gutted but when they reflect on this, and when we reflect on it as a group of staff and a team, ‘proud’ is the only word we’ve got for it. That is it. They should be so proud of what they’ve put out on the pitch tonight and if that’s the level that Leicester brought, then there are players in that group in Exeter City shirts tonight that are at that level, that can match the level, and you could see playing at that level one day, and they should believe that because they showed they’re capable tonight.”