Exeter City’s under-18s were handed a 1-0 defeat by Portsmouth under-18s on Friday thanks to a last-minute goal in their third game of the Youth Alliance South West division.
Much like last week, the young Grecians dominated large periods of the contest, with Charlie Hanson the closest to breaking the deadlock in the first half.
Despite the away side enjoying a bright spell early on in the second period, Chad Gribble’s side got back on top, and saw Jamie Nicholson and Toby Nevile both head decent chances off target.
The solitary strike came in the 90th minute when Pompey counter-attacked from a corner, which ultimately ended in a neat effort beating goalkeeper Andrew Sowden, meaning the Devonians remain pointless in what has been a challenging start to the season for them.
Despite Portsmouth’s long journey westwards to the Cliff Hill Training Ground on Friday morning, they settled rather quickly with the hosts making quite a few errors on the ball.
That shaky beginning saw the Hampshire outfit create a huge opening after 60 seconds, which perhaps they should have scored from; after breaking forward, one visiting attacker got in behind, however his shot was stopped by a fantastic one-on-one save from Sowden to ensure City didn’t get off to a dreadful start.
Following that early chance, the Exeter players then settled and displayed quality on the ball. Most of the play was in the Pompey half, and after a quarter of an hour, they created their first opportunity when Harrison King crossed for Hanson, but the forward’s header went just over the crossbar.
The chances became more frequent for the Grecians, and after a surge forward down the left side, Mitch Beardmore drifted infield before he flashed a ball across the face of goal that just evaded Nicholson at the back post.
On 30 minutes, Gribble’s men were in again after some neat build-up play sent Hanson through, however, the Portsmouth 'keeper displayed lightning-quick reactions and smothered the ball away before the striker could get any meaningful effort at goal.
Despite pinning their opponents back into their own half and causing them plenty of problems, the Devon club didn’t turn their dominance into any goals, meaning at the interval the scoreline remained goalless.
The away team enjoyed their most fruitful spell following the restart, with City’s youth team not getting a grasp on securing possession while making poor decisions on the ball.
That meant Pompey were able to send more balls into the Exeter penalty area, however, they were dealt with efficiently by a commanding backline, while Sowden also relieved the pressure on his defence by claiming a number of dangerous crosses that fell in front of his goal.
Portsmouth looked to create openings from set-pieces, but those opportunities were repelled by some stubborn defending, and following a period on the back foot, the Grecians soon took control of the game again near the hour mark.
And it wasn’t long before Gribble’s side began creating chances again. Hanson attacked down the left wing before checking back to link up with his teammates. The forward crossed for Nicholson, but he was unable to divert his header on target.
Nicholson was certainly influencing the game in an attacking sense, and twice his link-up play led to City efforts at goal; the first when King pulled the ball back for Beardmore, however, that shot just missed, while Gabriel Billington also teed up Beardmore, but winger's header went over.
The onslaught continued as time ticked down. From a corner, Nevile lost his marker and won the subsequent aerial duel, but the centre-back was unable to keep his header down.
As the contest hit the 90th minute, Exeter’s youth team again won themselves a corner. The initial cross was defended well, and after the Grecians tried recycling play, the ball was cleared by the Hampshire side. The visitors broke with speed and ferocity, which ultimately led to their attackers sending the ball past Sowden to shatter the hearts of everyone in red and white, and leave City rooted to the bottom of the league table.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “Football can be a cruel game, and I didn’t really know what to say to the players afterwards. That late goal was a real sucker punch! Against Cheltenham last week we dominated large periods but looked vulnerable to their long balls, but here we dominated and protected our box quite well. They had a spell, but we got back on top, and to be honest, the game plan was executed to perfection apart from having that finishing touch. The score could have been three, four or five in our favour, but we didn’t make it happen, and we still need to be ruthless in attack.
“It was a completely dominant performance, and after last week’s words, if I was to pick one thing to be this time around, I would’ve wanted us to be more resilient and look after our goal a bit better which is exactly what we did. The best form of attack is to build from a solid defence, but the next bit we need to be is ruthless. But it is another step forward, and in the three matches we have had, we’ve created decent opportunities and we could have scored eight, nine or even ten goals. If the players can stay positive, and trust the process, it will come, because I don’t want them to lose heart with what is going on.
“We believe in the way we play, and since I became the youth team coach three years ago, we’ve scored plenty of goals from it. Some of the players have been a part of those teams and scored from it also, and Charlie Hanson went away and played for his loan club Bideford at the weekend and scored. We aren’t quite getting the rub of the green right now, and we’ve been unlucky with ricochets and blocks, so we just need one to go our way. Portsmouth stayed strong here, and their goal was fantastic, and I can’t take that away from them. Football doesn’t always go your way, and when your opponent punishes you in a game you’ve been dominant in, they can be the hardest ones to take.
“We play Plymouth Argyle in the Youth Alliance Cup next week. It will be a one-off game, a Devon derby, and a cup tie, and a game the players will be looking forward to. But I do not doubt that it will be our toughest game yet, but it will give us a chance to play another game and get a step closer to becoming better. They’ve started the season well, and we’ve had fantastic games with them in the league and cups in recent years so I expect it to be the same and close once again.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Harrison King, Toby Nevile, Zeph Collins, Max Edgecombe, Michael Lilley, Gabriel Billington, Eli Collins, Mitch Beardmore, Charlie Hanson, Jamie Nicholson
Subs: Joe O’Connor, Ed James, Joe Wragg, George Spencer