Exeter City’s Under-18s lost for the first time in five games in the Youth Alliance South West division as Plymouth Argyle U18s triumphed 1-0 at the Cliff Hill Training Ground on Saturday.
The Grecians controversially had a goal ruled out midway through the first half when Joe Wragg was adjudged to have fouled a defender in the build up to Mitch Beardmore slotting the ball home from 10 yards.
Both teams enjoyed fruitful spells throughout the game, but the solitary goal came on the hour mark when Plymouth’s Will Jenkins-Davies picked up a loose ball on the edge of the box and fired a shot into the bottom corner.
City’s youngsters piled the pressure on the Pilgrims’ goal, however, there proved to be no way through, meaning the visitors grabbed all three points in what was a hotly contested Devon Derby.
Chad Gribble’s side were looking to continue their climb up the league standings on Saturday, while rivals Argyle were looking to bounce back from a heavy 6-3 defeat from the weekend before.
It was the home team who started the stronger, with a number of menacing crosses really putting their opponents on the back foot.
Toby Nevile had the first half-chance after a few minutes, while moments later, the lively Joe Wragg poked an effort through to Plymouth goalkeeper Zak Baker.
The Exeter crosses continued to threaten a goal, and in the ninth minute, Harrison King’s centre located Sonny Cox. The forward flicked the ball on to Mitch Beardmore, however, the winger could only slice an effort wide.
A lot of the game was played in the Pilgrims’ half, with the energetic and high pressing tactic of the Grecians really causing issues.
In the 21st minute, another aggressive press from City led to the game’s first major flashpoint. The away side tried to play their way out of trouble with a short free-kick, but, Gribble’s men were switched on to what was happening and quickly moved forward to meet their opponents.
Wragg appeared to have won the ball after going shoulder-to-shoulder with his opposite man down the right flank, before play was moved towards the middle of the pitch. Beardmore beat both the defender and ‘keeper to shoot the ball high into the net, however, the officials pulled play back as they believed the possession was won back unfairly.
Beardmore was becoming a real danger on the left side, and his link-up play with Cox led to the midfielder whipping another teasing ball into the box, though, Wragg was unfortunate not to get on the end of it for a tap in.
The visitors started seeing more of the ball as the half-hour mark approached. Within a few minutes, Argyle sent in two low crosses from the right, however, the Exeter defence were able to smother the ball to safety.
Up the other end, Beardmore’s smart thinking saw him take a quick free-kick to Cox; the striker's volley was saved easily by Baker.
Five minutes before the interval, a brilliant tackle from Max Edgecombe started another attack for the home team. A ball over the top found Cox, but his effort was once again denied by the goalie.
The final meaningful act of a frenetic first period came in the last minute. Plymouth attacked down the right wing once again, this time through Freddie Issaka, before his cross found Caleb Roberts. The resulting volley looked to be arrowing into the bottom corner, but a fine stop from Andrew Sowden kept things goalless as the teams went into half-time seconds later.
The Grecians looked to seize the initiative early in the second half, and good combination play from Cox and Wragg inside the first three minutes led to Eli Collins shooting low, however, the Pilgrims’ shot-stopper saved well.
Down the left flank, Beardmore and Michael Lilley exchanged passes in the 54th minute, before the overlapping run of full-back Edgecombe was located with a clever reverse pass. Edgecombe found Cox’s darting run to the front post, but the attacker could only flash an effort into the side netting.
Moments later, the visitors got a real foothold in the game. Following a tame effort from Issaka on 59 minutes, with their next attack, Argyle broke the deadlock. After a long ball forward, the ball broke for Jenkins-Davies, and his effort from 20-yards powered past Sowden into the bottom corner to make it 1-0.
Plymouth, off the back of their goal, gained more confidence and looked to build on their advantage. Issaka and Jenkins-Davies once again tried their luck, while some incredible defence cover from King meant it remained a one-goal game despite the Pilgrims rounding Sowden after 80 minutes.
Gribble’s looked to change things up as he threw on George Spencer, Alfie Cunningham, and Joe O’Connor during the final stages, while the City youth coach and his players were left aggrieved when shouts of a penalty for handball were turned away by the referee.
Three minutes from time, a mazy run from deep saw Cox bring his team up into the attacking third. The ball broke for Wragg, but a desperate block from the Argyle defence repelled the danger and the ball was eventually cleared.
That meant when the game came to a close a few minutes later, it was the Green Army who came away with the spoils, and it will be Exeter’s youngsters who will look to bounce back when they face Bristol Rovers U18s next weekend.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble
“I thought off the back of the chances we had, and the type of dominance we had in the game, we did enough to win the game on the day. It is certainly disappointing not to do so. Our dominance in the game led to chances, while their moments led to a bit of territory. We could have dealt with that a bit better, and used the ball in the second half better, but credit to Plymouth Argyle for finding a way to win.
“It was a well-contested game, but we had two clear cut chances in the first half, and one goal that was wrongly ruled out. We created something from a clever free-kick routine, and also should have had a penalty for handball, so when you consider those chances we could’ve been two, three or four goals up, which meant it would have been a totally different game.
“The approach of Plymouth became a bit more aggressive after half-time, and they were getting into areas of the pitch where there were chances of something dropping for them, which is what happened for the goal. You are always going to get chances playing that kind of way, and could we have defended it better, yes, but they capitalised on that moment, but we had moments too. In the end, it wasn’t our day, and congratulations to them for winning a competitive game.
“I think you always come away with disappointment in any game you lose, but probably more so this time because it is a derby, and how we lost in that manner. We weren’t well beaten, but ultimately chances count for nothing if you don’t put them away and keep them out at the other end.
"We had more than enough to score some goals here, and we have to learn to make our moments count. There are always things you can take away from a youth game, and the players are all still learning, but we want them to grow from this experience. It was the first Devon Derby at this level for a few of the players, which can come with different pressures and expectations, but we weren’t affected by that, we just didn’t get the rub of the green at times.
“There will be some members of our Under-18s that will play in the Devon Bowl match on Wednesday. We will have to try and implement our own game plan while trying to deny the opponent theirs. That will provide a great learning opportunity for our players, before we play Bristol Rovers U18s this coming Saturday, who we played a few weeks ago in the FA Youth Cup. We have to expect a reaction and some character from them in response to that game, so we can’t look at that cup match too much.
"It will be a separate game, in a different setting, and we can’t get complacent with our approach. It is going to be a test, and another good experience for our players.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Harrison King, Toby Nevile, Ed James, Max Edgecombe, Gabriel Billington, Michael Lilley, Eli Collins, Joe Wragg, Mitch Beardmore, Sonny Cox
Subs: Joe O’Connor, Dan Layer, Alfie Cunningham, George Spencer