Exeter City’s under-18s advanced into the semi-finals of the southern section of the Youth Alliance Cup following a 2-1 win over Newport County under-18s on Saturday.
Despite some decent chances at either end, the first half remained goalless, however, City centre-back, Toby Nevile, broke the deadlock 10 minutes into the second period.
Despite seeing a man sent off, good combination play from George Spencer and Jamie Nicholson saw the latter double the Exeter advantage with 15 minutes remaining.
A County penalty in the 80th minute set up a nervy ending to the contest, however, some resolute defending from the Grecians nullified many of the Welsh club’s attacks, which meant Chad Gribble and his squad returned to Devon with a well-earned victory.
City’s youngsters hit the road once again as they travelled to Wales to try and continue their recent run of encouraging results against an Exiles side who sat above them in the league standings.
But, in the Youth Alliance Cup, a winner had to be settled on the day, and both sides looked to be fired up for the tie following balanced spells of possession during the opening exchanges.
The home team were showing signs of aggressiveness with their regains in possession, while City settled into a rhythm and started building momentum after a quarter of an hour. Neither team, however, were able to create any decent goalscoring opportunities.
For all of the visitors’ possession, it was their shot-stopper, Andrew Sowden, who was the first goalkeeper to be called into any real action when Newport sprung a counter-attack forward on 20 minutes. The quick break led to a one-on-one chance against Sowden, with the young Grecian standing tall to maintain his clean sheet.
Ten minutes later, County again threatened on the counter by creating two openings in a matter of moments. As before, both opportunities led to a striker versus ‘keeper scenario, and Sowden proved his worth by denying both efforts and keeping matters scoreless.
With the better chances falling the way of the Welsh club, Exeter’s youth side responded with some strikes at goal themselves just as half-time approached. The first came when Mitch Beardmore headed a Harrison King cross off target, and that was followed up minutes later when Joe Wragg dribbled his way past a few defenders, before he sent a teasing ball into the middle, before Spencer fired a shot into the side netting.
On the stroke of half-time, Max Edgecombe was forced off with an injury, which meant when the referee blew for the interval, Gribble was required to shuffle his team around, alongside deliver an inspiring dressing room message, ahead of another competitive 45 minutes.
However his players began the second period rather poorly, and, in contrast to the first half, it was their opponents who began proceedings the stronger and had control of the ball in and around the Exeter 18-yard box.
It meant that the Devonians posed their goal threat on the break, and, in the 55th minute, they won themselves a corner. Beardmore swung in the set-piece, and after it was helped on at the near post, Nevile reacted quickest at the far stick to prod the ball home and hand City the lead.
In the aftermath of the opener, the game went through a 10 minute period of end-to-end football, where both teams cancelled one another out, and no side had any real control.
While the quality was low, a red card for the visitors midway through the second half adjusted the flow of the game; The Exiles looked to surge forward quickly but play was halted when Ed James brought down a Newport forward on the halfway line and received a second booking for his actions.
But that didn’t stop James’ teammates from creating anymore attacking goalmouth action, and, after a period of sitting in and soaking up the pressure, on 75 minutes, they doubled their advantage following some intricate build-up play. Substitute Nicholson advanced down the right flank before he pulled the ball back to Spencer. The striker slipped a pass back to replacement, and Nicholson tucked the ball under the home goalie to make it 2-0.
Up the other end of the pitch, the Grecians defended solidly, allowing the opposition no real shots on Sowden’s goal, with County only really posing a danger through their set-piece routines.
But, with 10 minutes left, the Welshmen were handed a lifeline when they whipped in a corner. Michael Lilley was adjudged to have pulled back his opposite number, which resulted in an Exiles penalty. The spot-kick was duly converted, which sparked a little bit of a revival in the hosts’ ranks.
But Gribble’s men proved to be resilient and hard to break down during the final moments, and despite their opponents racking up the shot count and increasing the number of set-pieces they had, they held on to their slender lead.
In injury time, Newport did have the ball in the back of the net, however, the officials blew for a foul on Nevile, and consequently disallowed the goal.
That meant when the full-time whistle sounded, Exeter’s youngsters did secure the victory, and, for the second consecutive season, Gribble's side have now reached the semi-finals of the southern section of the Youth Alliance Cup.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “We were slow to begin with, but we found a rhythm, and in general, I was happy with how the first half was going. They were hitting us on the break, so we made a few in-game tweaks to stop that, and that put us in a good place. But losing Max Edgecombe was big, as we had to change our shape, which killed our momentum, and rather played into Newport’s hands. It was disappointing, but these things happen, and our players had to adapt.
“The game had everything, and the players were challenged in many different ways. It wasn’t pretty at times, and the players got through a lot of running without seeing a lot of the ball in the second half. We don’t experience situations like having a man sent off a lot, and although we train scenarios like that, it doesn’t reflect what an actual match feels like. Ed James will be disappointed, particularly with the first yellow card as it was a naive mistake, but he’ll learn from it. We were then up against it, and had to adopt a new approach mid-game, and the players had to figure out the problems in front of them. I’m certainly pleased they got through that challenge.
“The next round will be played in late November. It is the second year in a row that we have managed to get to the semi-finals of the southern section, so that is a great achievement in itself. Hopefully, we can go one or two games better this time around. Cup competitions, if you get far enough, can provide some great experiences for the players that can help shape you as a player. This is certainly one of those moments, and I have my fingers crossed for a good draw, and we shall see who will come out on top when the day comes.
“We play our re-arranged league match against Oxford United U18s this coming weekend. I think along with what I said about the Plymouth game, this will be a test that fits in the category as one of the hardest ones we will face. We’ve had a really interesting start to the season. We’ve played really well in games and lost, played not so well in others and got a result, so it has been a real mixture. But we always felt an upturn in results would happen. We couldn’t play at the high level we did against Portsmouth and not take that forward. We probably haven’t played to that level since, but we have displayed it in patches, and the Swindon match was close. In the last four matches, we have found ways to win. Beforehand, we might have been easy on the eye, but perhaps we were a bit naive, and we conceded the types of goals a youth team will always let in. We needed to toughen up, and become more resilient which is what happened, and now we have a really good game ahead of us that we will look forward to.
“The players are learning every day. Oxford will be probably the most physical challenge we'll come up against, because they are always big, quick and strong, so this is a good game to expose the players to those elements. We have managed to come through physical tests already this season against Newport, Swindon, as well as in the Devon Bowl match against a senior side. This is a slightly bigger challenge, but young players always want to play in challenging matches, and they will all want to compete hard against Oxford on Saturday.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Harrison King, Toby Nevile, Ed James, Max Edgecombe, Gabriel Billington, Michael Lilley, Eli Collins, Mitch Beardmore, Joe Wragg, George Spencer
Subs: Joe O’Connor, Jamie Nicholson, Tom Dean, Sam Joce