Exeter City’s under-18s secured a narrow 1-0 victory over Bristol Rovers under-18s in the penultimate round of this year’s EFL Youth Alliance Regional Merit League on Saturday.
In a game of few clear-cut chances, the breakthrough came with just eight minutes remaining when City substitute Mitch Beardmore headed an effort into the bottom corner to finish off a wonderful sweeping move.
Despite the Pirates having a decent late chance, Chad Gribble’s men held on for the three points, leaving them top of the standings with 10 points ahead of their final fixture against Forest Green Rovers next weekend.
Fresh from their dominant performance against Newport County last week, the young Grecians traded blows with Rovers during the early stages of Saturday’s fixture. The visitors enjoyed the opening periods with a spell of possession and territory, however, they came away from their forays forward without ever threatening Harry Lee’s goal.
Up the other end, Exeter settled into a rhythm, and began putting together some neat passages of play as they looked particularly menacing down the wide channels. Alfie Clark and Zeph Collins posed a threat down one side, while Harrison King and Charlie Hanson also looked dangerous on the other wing.
The Bristolians caused their opponents problems on the counter-attack, and in the 10th minute, they started a move all the way from their goalkeeper which almost led to an opener. The ball floated over the head of King, however, on the cover, Toby Nevile read play superbly to put a stop to the attack before the Gas forward had a chance to shoot.
That scare kicked the hosts into life as they became more aggressive in their defending and restricted their opponents to very little. However, with only a small amount of pressure being applied at the top end of the pitch, no real chances opened up as the half wore on. When the half-time sounded, the score remained goalless despite the two different styles of play from both teams.
It was the Pirates who started the second period on the front foot, with their switches of play looking like the best way to break the deadlock. But they found Gribble’s side a tough nut to crack, and the City backline defended their box solidly despite being put under some immense spells of pressure.
Rovers created half an opening when they cut in from the flank, however, the resulting effort drifted off target.
As the second half grew older, the Grecians worked their way back into the contest when they began working the ball back into the wider areas of the pitch. Chances soon opened up for them after a few tactical adjustments were made and Jamie Nicholson was introduced from the bench. His delightful cross from the right failed to find another red and white jersey, while fellow replacement Beardmore, combined effectively with Max Edgecombe moments later down the left side, however, the resulting ball in came to no avail.
It was a fruitful period for Exeter, and they thought they should have had a penalty on 75 minutes when Hanson wriggled free from the opposition defence before he took a tumble in the 18-yard box. The referee however waved away the appeals and play continued.
Seven minutes later, however, their pressure finally told when some intricate build-up play resulted in the move of the game. Beardmore received the ball into his feet, before he moved it on to Michael Lilley. The midfielder found Edgecombe out wide, and his smart cut-back located the late run of Beardmore into the box, and the sub guided a header past the away goalie and into the back of the net to make it 1-0.
The Bristol outfit tried to muster a response in the few minutes that remained, and just before the clock went into injury time, they created their best opportunity when they got in down the right side. But, the consequential effort was blazed high and wide and it remained at a one-goal game.
That miss meant the home side saw out the victory, allowing them to climb to the top of the Merit League standings, ahead of a big game next week when they take on third-placed Forest Green Rovers in their final fixture.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: "It was a really even game, and being solid at the back was important. We had the early scare when we got around on the cover, but from that point on we defended our own half, and our penalty area well. We didn’t really get in behind their defence often, and if they ended up scoring their late chance then 1-1 might’ve been a fair result, but I think we did enough during that 20-minute period during the second half.
“A solid defensive display gives you something to build from. Harry Lee and the defenders were adamant that they were keeping a clean sheet before the game, and they did just that. In those spells of pressure, we didn’t look rattled.
“The team really stood up to the challenge. We put out a young side once again, and handed a first start to Harrison King. We had a bit of a selection headache before the game, and it is no surprise that Mitch Beardmore, off the back of two assists last week, came off the bench again to get the winner here. The young side had to stand up to the test of facing older players, and playing against a different type of opponent to perhaps what they are used to, and they did that. Whatever the outcome was going to be, this was always going to provide them with a great opportunity. It was played at Taunton Town, in a stadium, in front of a few supporters too, and the players really stood up to the occasion.
“The young players, every time they have stepped on to the pitch have delivered, and yesterday was the most we have put out together at the same time. It is also the most we have started in a game this season. That shows the process is working, and every player now is in contention for a starting spot. But we mustn't forget we also have a group, the older scholars, who have played well throughout the season. Next week we play Forest Green Rovers in our last game, and I’m not sure what we will do for that selection wise, but what we do know is that it will be a tough game. We’ve played them three times this season and all of those matches have been close. This has turned into a real interesting mini-league for us as we sit top of the table, with a number of teams behind us having the chance to go level on points with us with their game in hand, and Forest Green being one of those. It means that Saturday will have a sense of realism to it as the players have something to play for. That will provide the players with some realistic experience and exposure, and might mean the game next weekend will have an edgy feel about it, and we’ll just have to see how we respond to that pressure.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Harry Lee, Harrison King, Alfie Pond, Toby Nevile, Zeph Collins, Michael Lilley, Eli Collins, Gabriel Billington, Alfie Clark, Sonny Cox, Charlie Hanson
Subs: Edward James, Max Edgecombe, Jamie Nicholson, Mitch Beardmore