Exeter City’s under-18s kept up their resurgence in form with a magnificent 1-0 win away at Oxford United under-18s on Saturday.
The Grecians started the brighter, but United came the closest to breaking the deadlock when a deflected strike at goal looped up high, however, Andrew Sowden made an excellent save to keep matters goalless.
The solitary goal arrived seven minutes before half-time when Eli Collins delivered a free-kick towards the near post, and Harrison King got to the ball first, before turning it past the stricken goalkeeper.
A resilient and strong defensive performance was required in the second period, and although the U’s had plenty of possession, they were unable to break down a solid Devonian backline, and the previously unbeaten Oxford side, eventually succumbed to their first defeat
City under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble, and his young squad returned to matters in the Youth Alliance South West division at the weekend and faced a difficult trip to a Yellows side that had started the season strong.
Despite being away from home, it was they who began Saturday’s proceedings in the ascendancy by creating the contest’s first real opportunity; after winning the ball back in their own half, play was quickly moved on to Charlie Hanson, who fed Jamie Nicholson on the left, but he could only blaze a shot over the bar.
After a quarter of an hour, the visitors created another decent chance on the counter-attack. Hanson found himself in on goal down the side of the retreating defence, but the striker only managed to hit the side netting with his effort.
Afterwards, the home team responded with a bright 15 minute period, and they almost made the breakthrough from the opportunities they managed to create while on top; the first came when one United player cut in from his wing and fired just wide, before one attempt from the edge of the penalty area was bravely blocked by Sam Joce, and, as a result, deflected high above Sowden in the Exeter goal. The ‘keeper however leapt back and produced a tremendous save to deny the U’s forward.
In the 38th minute, it was the Grecians who broke the deadlock. Collins curled a wicked set-piece which located the run of King at the front post. The full-back reached the ball ahead of the advancing goalie, and he managed to divert it into the back of the net to make it 1-0.
Just five minutes later, the Devon club almost doubled their advantage in similar circumstances. This time from a corner, Collins whipped another teasing ball in, and King once again got to the ball first and sent a header goalbound. In amongst a chaotic six-yard box, the ball was somehow blocked off the line, and scrambled away, much to the relief of the Oxford players.
The Yellows enjoyed plenty of spells of possession, and in the second half, that trend continued. Gribble’s men, however, stood up to the challenge that faced them and restricted their opponents to a limited number of clear-cut chances.
Up the other end of the pitch, the away side put together several counter-attacks, with substitute Joe Wragg finding himself in an advanced position down the right flank at one stage. The winger’s cross was met by Hanson at the near post, but a desperate block from his marker managed to turn the ball away.
Tom Dean’s introduction from the bench also injected life into the Exeter ranks, and after surging down the left side he managed to cut the ball back to Michael Lilley. The resulting effort though was charged down and the ball eventually was cleared by the hosts’ defence.
As the half wore on, the pressure on the Grecians’ goal continued to mount, however, the shape and solidity of the well-marshalled backline meant the opposition never really forced Sowden into any meaningful saves.
Late on, the match came down to the Devonians trying to do enough to manage the game and run the clock down. By the time the full-time whistle sounded, they still were able to repel the waves of attacks on their goal, meaning they returned home with a hard-fought three points, maintaining their positive run of results, and have now climbed to ninth in the league standings.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “Oxford were unbeaten coming into the game, and they have got some fantastic players in their squad. We knew they would be good with the ball, and there were times in this game where we needed to put more bodies behind the ball. We played a bit differently, and it was a bit like the Newport game when we were reduced to 10 men, but with a bit more control. What was most pleasing was the effective decisions we made when we won the ball back. Whether we broke out and attacked, or, retained possession. Without the ball, we were just as aggressive but set up to let them have the ball in certain areas, while making it more compact in other positions. We started our press much deeper and took space away from them. On the day the plan ended up working.
“Groups in the past have been asked to play like that, and this time around it was no different. We have to be careful that our programme doesn’t just set up the boys to play in one way only, and here this was the perfect chance to experience a different way of playing. It was nice to see a new group show that game intelligence to make the plan work.
“The players believed in themselves from the moment they arrived in Oxford. There is a belief in that group that stems from last season’s nder-16s and the national championship they won. Credit has to go to the group’s character, because in the first three games of the season, they played fantastic at times, and came away with nothing. Players can lose faith when that happens, but this is another game that has added to their belief.
“After the game, the boys were drained mentally, physically and emotionally. The match itself had few chances, and it was won through a set-piece goal, and Andrew Sowden’s wonderful save. Oxford have fantastic players with fantastic physical attributes who never gave up. Our team couldn’t switch off. It was a good step for them as we ended up with our first clean sheet in the league. Retaining that concentration isn’t easy, particularly during the last 15 minutes when they look to create opportunity after opportunity. But we stayed resilient which is what I demanded of the players and was nice to see.
“We are home to Forest Green Rovers under18s next. Every game is different in this league, and Forest Green always offer a unique challenge. It will be a proper football match, a tactical battle, and the players will have to think on their feet. It will be different to what we have faced before, but that is the beauty of this league, and it will just be another experience the players will go through. We are now going to have an action-packed period, where we will go through two weeks of double games with the FA Youth Cup and Devon Bowl on the horizon. I like the momentum the busy schedules can generate and how it replicates to the first team calendar. The Saturday/Tuesday schedule isn’t as easy as people think, and including the travelling, that is what our players are going through now. But we are certainly looking forward to what the next few weeks will bring.”
Exeter City under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Harrison King, Toby Nevile, Sam Joce, Gabriel Billington, Michael Lilley, Eli Collins, Jamie Nicholson, Mitch Beardmore, Joe O’Connor, Charlie Hanson
Subs: Joe Wragg, George Spencer, Tom Dean