Exeter City’s Under-18s secured another important three points as they climbed the Youth Alliance South West Division to fourth position courtesy of the 2-1 victory they achieved at Cheltenham Town U18s on Saturday.
In a match played in blustery conditions, the Grecians made the most of the wind when they broke the deadlock eight minutes before half-time through Charlie Hanson’s fine individual effort.
The advantage was doubled in the 71st minute when Joe Wragg won his side a penalty, and Eli Collins coolly dispatched his attempt into the back of the net.
Town pulled a goal back with a minute remaining through Alfie Taylor, but Exeter’s youngsters stood firm during the final tense moments to take the win and move level on points with third-placed Oxford in the league standings.
On a day where the snowfall and wind levels increased across the country, Chad Gribble took his young squad to Gloucestershire to face a Cheltenham side who had already beaten them this season.
Unlike the contest back in September however, this was a game of two halves thanks to the lively weather conditions. The Devon outfit started with the wind in their favour and they just perhaps edged the opening moments.
The hosts struggled to play themselves out from their own half, and every time they looked to play short and snappy football to work their way through the thirds, the pressing game from City helped them pinch the ball back on numerous occasions.
That made for a bit of a scrappy affair, and while the away side won the majority of the second balls, they never had a sense of control on the match despite the territory favouring them.
Half-chances fell for Hanson and Joe O’Connor, however, both saw their strikes blocked and cleared away, while Sonny Cox fired an effort over after working his way into the penalty area thanks to some neat footwork midway through the first 45.
The Robins responded with an attack of their own after half an hour. A long ball from the left fell nicely for their centre-forward, but goalkeeper Andrew Sowden stayed big and produced a fabulous save with his feet to keep matters goalless.
That chance enabled Town’s players to enjoy a fruitful spell in the game, and for the first time, they enjoyed a bit of control in midfield.
However, that momentum was abruptly halted in the 37th minute as the Grecians took the lead. Harrison King intercepted a pass, before moving play on to Hanson. The striker wriggled free of two defenders, before cutting inside another, and he finished across goal into the bottom corner to round off a superb bit of play.
That breakthrough helped set the tone for the remainder of the half, with Exeter asserting their supremacy with more territory and lots of forward passes. But despite searching for another to increase their lead, they went into half-time with just the one-goal cushion.
The second period saw the Gloucestershire club try and use their wind advantage as a way to level matters, but it was Gribble’s men who started the brighter as they got the ball down and built several attacks.
Max Edgecombe and Mitch Beardmore started to look dangerous on the left flank, and they both were unlucky not to create clear-cut opportunities early on when Edgecombe mis-hit a cross, before Beardmore's poor connection on his attempt at goal.
With Cheltenham only really threatening on the counter-attack, it was the Devonians who grabbed the second goal of the game 19 minutes from time.
Substitute Joe Wragg dribbled past his marker 20-yards out, before he burst into the box and won his team a foul from the defender’s lunging tackle. Collins kept up his decent record from the spot and tucked away his penalty to make it 2-0.
In response, the home team switched formation and threw more bodies forward to try and get themselves back into the game.
Sowden was called into action again during the final 10 minutes when a failed clearance from his defence instigated a Robins attack. The ball fell nicely for Harvey Skurek, and his long-range strike was stopped well by Sowden, before the City goalie picked himself and threw himself in front of the rebound to repel the follow up in what was a tremendous bit of goalkeeping.
For all of the 'keeper's heroics though, Town did manage to pull a goal back with a minute remaining. Another scuffed clearance gave Cheltenham possession once again, and a precise centre found Taylor in front of goal, and he powered a shot over the goalie to halve the deficit and set up a thrilling finale.
But despite the wind, the territory and the momentum all against the visitors in the final moments, the Grecian backline remained solid and resilient, despite the large number of bodies that were thrown forward from their counterparts, meaning they took home a deserved three points from a bitterly cold afternoon at the Energy Check Training Ground.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “It was one of those games where you stood on the sidelines and thought that you don’t like the way the team are playing, but massive credit has to go to the players because they played what the game needed based on the conditions. In a way, it was a real mature performance from them. It was a game of two halves, because you have got to play one way with the wind, and then play another way without it. But the players executed that well, and I thought we did enough to get the win.
“That was the first time some of these players have played in conditions like that, and it is certainly the first time the group have faced those conditions this season. Cheltenham are also a physical side, so to face that kind of test in that weather, we had to make sure we went toe-to-toe with them, and we certainly did that. We knew we would have to have enough quality in our passing, but it was by no means a controlled performance, but we found a way to overcome the hurdles that were put in front of us.
“Harrison King was outstanding all game. He was aggressive against probably their best player, and his approach epitomised what was needed from us on the day. Ed James was dominant at centre-back. We know that is one of Ed’s best characteristics and he showed that today alongside Toby Nevile, who we know has been a consistent performer throughout the season. Joe Wragg was also electric when he came on.
“When you play in those conditions, there is a sense of unpredictability, and there is always a mistake in the game. Andrew Sowden was called upon at three vital moments, but I can’t fault the backline because the way they’ve dealt with the forward deliveries was 90% dominant, with the remaining 10% being that unpredictable nature.
“We play AFC Bournemouth U18s in the FA Youth Cup next, however, this match and that cup tie will be two separate games. They will be different types of matches, and different occasions. Any game is good preparation as it helps keep a rhythm going, and we are in a bit of a positive one at the moment. It is never an easy game against Bournemouth, and I expect it will be a really good game for anyone who comes and watches it on Thursday night!”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Harrison King, Toby Nevile, Ed James, Max Edgecombe, Joe O’Connor, Michael Lilley, Eli Collins, Mitch Beardmore, Charlie Hanson, Sonny Cox
Subs: Gabriel Billington, Zeph Collins, Joe Wragg, Alfie Cunningham, George Spencer