Exeter City’s Under-18s returned to winning ways with a 2-1 home victory over Bristol Rovers U18s on Saturday in a hotly contested Westcountry derby.
The opening goal came just after the half-hour mark when City’s high press saw them win back possession, and a quick combination allowed George Spencer to finish powerfully.
The Devon outfit doubled their lead a minute before half-time when good work from Joe Wragg won his team a penalty, with Eli Collins tucking home the resulting spot-kick.
A resurgent Gas side piled the pressure onto the hosts' goal in the second half, and despite cutting the deficit in the 72nd minute, as well as having another goal chalked off, Exeter’s youngsters held on to secure the victory, which lifts them to fifth in the Youth Alliance South West league standings.
Chad Gribble’s side were looking to bounce back with a win following last week’s defeat to Plymouth. They started, however, a little on the back foot with the Pirates being aggressive without the ball, while having lengthy spells of pressure with it.
The visitors’ right flank began extremely brightly, and they got down that side and delivered some teasing balls into the penalty box on several occasions. The Grecians’ cause was also disrupted early on with Sonny Cox’s departure, with Spencer coming on in the striker’s place in just the fifth minute.
Following some solid defending from City’s backline, the team managed to gain a foothold in the contest after a quarter of an hour. Spencer had his first sight at goal just a few moments later when a deflected effort went wide following Max Edgecombe’s searching ball into the middle.
Despite the Bristol side firing a long-range effort wide at the midpoint of the first half, the better chances started opening up for the Devonians, and they should have taken the lead on 27 minutes after Gabriel Billington and Harrison King linked up on the right wing. A deep ball led to a diving header at the far post, however, Wragg could only send the ball wide.
Up at the other end of the pitch, a strong run down the right side by one Rovers winger ended up with a ball played inside to their centre-forward, however, he could only scuff a shot past the post when he should have done better.
The deadlock was broken on 32 minutes when an aggressive press led to City winning back the ball in the final third. A slick interchange saw the ball slid into the path of Spencer, and he lashed the ball high into the back of the net, leaving the goalkeeper no chance of keeping the strike out.
Both teams continued to trade chances in the lead up to half-time, however, a minute before the interval, the Devonians grabbed their second goal of the day. King played a through ball down the left for Wragg to run onto. The wide-man won the footrace and dribbled past his opposite man into the box as the options opened up for him. One Gas defender looked to steal the ball back, however felled Wragg, leaving the referee little option but to award the penalty. Collins stepped up and struck the ball calmly into the bottom corner to make it 2-0.
The first half-chance following the restart once again fell to Exeter’s youngsters as they looked to seal the win. In the 51st minute, Alfie Cunningham flashed a low ball across the face of the Pirates’ goal, however, that attacking pressure failed to lead to anything.
Lee was starting to be called upon more frequently as the away side pulled themselves further up the pitch in the search of a way back into the contest. During a five minute spell, Lee held on comfortably from two speculative efforts from the Bristolians.
Changes in personnel were made by both teams as the next goal became more crucial as the half wore on.
Charlie Hanson was one of those introduced by Gribble, and he almost made an instant impact when he rose highest to reach the cross from fellow replacement Joe O’Connor. The attacker’s header though clipped the post and danger was averted.
Hanson again played a key role in the 70th minute after he exchanged passes with Cunningham. The latter cut in from the right wing and bent a lovely effort that just whistled past the far post.
Rovers ramped up the pressure in response, thanks to their flurry of attacking players all on the pitch towards the final stages of the game.
With 18 minutes remaining, their pressure on the hosts’ goal eventually paid off, as they pulled a goal back thanks to some neat build-up play on the left side. The resulting cross saw the Gas get to the ball first, which was diverted home setting up a tense finish.
With the wind in their sails, the away side started upping the tempo. But it was from a set-piece that they almost drew level, with a direct free-kick denied by a diving save from Lee.
On 77 minutes, controversy arose when the Bristol club surged down the right. A deep ball from the byline sailed over everyone in the middle, before a Pirates midfielder gambled and got on the end of the cross to send the ball into the back of the net, only for the linesman and referee to disallow the goal for what appeared to be for an offside decision.
A combination of that decision, and a few niggly fouls in the middle of the park caused tempers to fray, and the yellow card begin to appear on the regular.
That allowed the Grecians to regroup, and in reply to the setback of the conceded goal, they took charge of the final five minutes.
Alfie Cunningham arrowed a cross-shot just wide on 88 minutes, while a short goal kick from the Gas a minute later invited pressure back onto them quickly when they lost the ball. Spencer dribbled his way to within shooting distance, and he guided the ball past the advancing ‘keeper with a low shot, however, the ball clipped the inside of the post and rolled away from goal.
As the game ticked into injury time, O’Connor sent an effort off-target, while Michael Lilley also tried his luck, but his shot from distance went narrowly over.
Spencer saw another strike turned away by a decent save, and, deep into injury time, in amongst the other penalty area, there was still time for the Pirates to threaten when a shot on the angle forced Lee to concede a corner. From the resulting set-play however, a thumping header by Toby Nevile cleared the danger, which meant it was his team that celebrated at the full-time whistle, banishing all memories of last weekend’s loss with a gutsy performance and win against Rovers.
Post Match Thoughts
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “I think the way we started came from the number of football matches we have had recently. Wednesday night was tough for the players for many reasons. The pitch was heavy and we played uphill for a significant amount of time, so it took us 15 minutes to really get our legs going here. After that, we managed to get close to Bristol Rovers, spoilt their build-up play, and started creating chances and gaining the territory we needed. I’m certainly pleased we stayed in it during that period.
“The game was about finding a way to respond with what they threw at us. There was always going to be a response off of the back of the FA Youth Cup game, and we had to be ready for that. One or two players had to solve the problems out on the pitch. Each moment can produce challenges, and we made our moments count. Our closing down speed was outstanding, and we deserved our goal from it. I am pleased it got to that point, because that was something we highlighted before the game, disrupting their play was going to be key, and that worked for us. We always want to be on the front foot, and wanted to play in their half as much as we could.
“I thought we managed the game really well in the second half. In the first 20 minutes of that half, we played our best football of the game and had much more control. At times it was complete dominance. The substitutions gave us impact and value from the bench, but also added disruption, and making four changes in key areas will always lead to some sort of disruption. I would’ve liked us to continue that dominance, but we became a bit panicky. The goal didn’t help, and we need to be calmer in those moments. But we held out, and what epitomised our defensive effort was Toby Nevile’s header at the end from their header when he had three people around him.
“Every game is different, and we place as much value in the Youth Alliance league as we do in the FA Youth Cup. I thought that was evident from our players here. When we reflect on this match, we’ll look back and realise it gave us a bit of everything. The first 15 minutes we were under pressure, and then we had to find some sort of control, then we managed to get to where we wanted and scored, and then at the end, it was our backs to the wall again.
“Games in quick succession builds momentum, and I like the fact we play twice in three days as it reflects the busy Christmas schedule the first team has. I’ve told the players not to worry too much as we have a fit group, and we have played physical games in a short space of time already this year. There will be added adrenaline for the FA Youth Cup match, because the boys want to qualify for the next round. Chelmsford will be a brilliant test as we don’t know anything about them, and we don’t know any of the players, so the boys are going to have to problem solve out on the pitch. This is a great chance for the players to put into practice everything they have worked on this season. They have done that before, and they will need to do it again. It is a big game for the opposition, they have won their two qualifying games comfortably, which suggests they might have a handful of players good enough to be at professional clubs. But I am confident the mindset of the players will be right, and I am confident that our approach will be right too.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Harry Lee, Harrison King, Toby Nevile, Ed James, Max Edgecombe, Gabriel Billington, Michael Lilley, Eli Collins, Joe Wragg, Alfie Cunningham, Sonny Cox
Subs: Andrew Sowden, Joe O’Connor, Zeph Collins, Charlie Hanson, George Spencer