Exeter City’s under-18s ended the season as runners-up in the EFL Youth Alliance Regional Merit League as Chad Gribble’s side suffered a 3-2 defeat at Forest Green Rovers on Saturday.
In a close and competitive game throughout, Charlie Hanson bundled home the opener from a corner, before Rovers levelled terms with a penalty five minutes before half-time.
A defensive mistake allowed FGR to break away and score on the hour mark, and they doubled their advantage not long after when a curling effort found the top corner of Jack Arthur’s goal.
Sonny Cox’s half-volley reduced the deficit, and despite threatening in the latter stages through set-pieces, City were unable to find an equaliser, resulting in them coming away from their final competitive game of the 2020/21 season with a loss.
Going into the final round of fixtures, this season’s EFL Youth Alliance Regional Merit League still hung in the balance as one of four teams were still capable of lifting the trophy. Two of those clubs met as Exeter’s youngsters travelled to Forest Green.
And the game began with early evidence that there was plenty at stake. Both sides looked to get on the front foot early, and as a result, the opening moments were rather end-to-end.
Despite some neat passages of possession from both sets of players, it was actually the defences who were on top as no real chances opened up, and some strong tackles and brave blocks denied the forwards any space to shoot from.
But following on from the open start, the hosts began to settle into a defensive shape which saw the Grecians enjoy more possession. Rovers’ backline however proved to be hard to break down as they set up in a solid shape and were well organised.
The Devonians ended up having more joy out wide. That led to them winning a flurry of corners in quick succession. Eli Collins whipped a dangerous delivery into the middle, and, despite the half-clearance, in the scramble that followed, Hanson demonstrated his predatory instincts by forcing the ball over the line from close-range to hand his team the initiative.
In spite of the goal, the game continued in a similar vein, as the away team looked to apply pressure from high up the pitch, while FGR looked to get the ball down and play when they could. Occasionally that saw Forest Green play through the press, which allowed them to get into some threatening positions.
It was through that kind of avenue that allowed the home team to level the scores in the 40th minute. After getting through City’s initial pressure, they moved the ball to the right flank, where their winger cut inside and drew a foul from Michael Lilley inside the 18-yard box to win his team a penalty. Rovers dispatched the resulting spot-kick to restore parity just before the two teams went into the break.
The start of the second half saw Exeter begin on top as they enjoyed more of the ball, but, again, found themselves up against a stubborn FGR defence. Despite that, the Grecians explored down the right wing on numerous occasions, which in turn saw Hanson, and full-back Ellis Johnson provide some menacing crosses.
However, despite appearing to be in control, it was the Devon outfit who conceded the day’s third goal from a defensive error. After looking to switch play, centre-back Alfie Pond got caught on the ball and handed possession back to the opposition. Forest Green quickly countered, and in turn, took full advantage of their opportunity to make it 2-1.
The hosts compounded the misery on Gribble’s men just a few minutes later as they seized the momentum and scored again. The ball was pulled back from a wide position into a midfield runner, and he was able to dribble in-field and bend an effort out of the reach of Arthur, but inside the post, to extend his side's advantage and leave City with a mountain to climb if they wanted to take home the Merit League crown.
That goal forced Exeter into a change of shape, and they threw more bodies forward in their search for an avenue back into the contest. That switch finally came to fruition with a quarter of an hour remaining when Johnson once again attacked down the right side. His cross located Cox in front of goal, and the striker's half-volley from inside the six-yard box powered into the back of the net to make the final stages a little nervy for the home team.
The Grecians continued to threaten, however, creating that clear-cut chance for an equaliser proved to be rather challenging. Their attacking pressure led to opportunities from set-plays, however, the free-kicks and corners led to very little, and the Rovers ‘keeper in truth had little to do as the clock ticked down.
Full-time sounded with the Devon club unable to breach the FGR defence once again, meaning it was Rovers who snatched the final three points of the season, however, the celebrations were bigger down in Plymouth, as it was Argyle’s Under-18s who ended the day at the top of the standings courtesy of their draw with Cheltenham Town U18s.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “It was a tight game, and I felt that in the first half, things were really close. I’m not sure if we deserved to go in at 1-1, maybe 1-0 on the balance of play, but we gave away a penalty and these things happen. But, at half-time, I thought if we really committed to what we were doing well we would have a chance, and we started the second half extremely well, but the mistake we made for their second goal was a human error, and we didn’t respond well to that. We lacked a shape and structure, and they managed to hit us while we were down which was a little frustrating.”
“The match started pretty normally, with both teams wanting to win. It seemed like a game where there was going to be goals. The pressure came I think when the mistake happened. At 1-1, it was still anyone’s game. We made a mistake, and it was going to come down to how would we react to that. Ultimately, that spell in the match cost us and gave us a mountain to climb. I can’t fault the players’ efforts, but you have to credit Forest Green as they found a way to hurt us while we were down. They had a solid defensive structure and were quicker, more physical, and more hard-working than us, and in the end, we found it quite difficult to get back into the game.
“We stayed young with the team selection, and I think Forest Green may have been a touch older than ourselves but that’s ok. The right result would have been nice, winning the Merit League would have been nice, but there is a bigger picture here, and we decided to stick with the process and chose not to play some of the second years. Providing minutes to the younger players became our priority, and I think they found the jump up in physicality and speed was bigger than what they had previously experienced. Forest Green were more physical than us, which is a nice lesson for our younger players, but our guys stood up to the challenge and ran them very close, and at one stage were ahead in the game. There were lots of good individual moments in the game, but just not enough of a team performance from them here.
“It would have been easy for us to take a backwards step and play the older players here, but we didn’t want to do that. Harrison King, who was excellent last week, performed well. Max Edgecombe played well from the bench, and Gabriel Billington had a bit of an eye-opening day in midfield, but found the right moments to play some nice stuff. We mustn’t forget that Sonny Cox is still a young player too and he scored again. The next bit now is to combine it all and deliver as a collective. The defeat here is definitely not the be-all and end-all.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Jack Arthur, Ellis Johnson, Alfie Pond, Toby Nevile, Zeph Collins, Michael Lilley, Eli Collins, Gabriel Billington, Alfie Clark, Sonny Cox, Charlie Hanson
Subs: Harrison King, Max Edgecombe, Jamie Nicholson, Mitch Beardmore