Exeter City’s Under-18s suffered a 3-1 defeat to Cheltenham Town on Saturday in their first game back in the Youth Alliance South West division since the middle of August.
Chad Gribble’s men controlled much of the first period, but had to wait until after half-time to break the deadlock when Mitch Beardmore helped force the ball in from close range.
However, a defensive mix up just a few minutes later saw the Robins equalise, before they levelled just past the hour mark when a powerful cross was bundled home by the onrushing Town forward.
The Gloucestershire outfit doubled their advantage inside the last 10 minutes following a long throw into the penalty area, with the advancing full-back sneaking in at the far post to drive home his team’s third to seal the victory for his team, and hand City their second defeat of the season.
Cheltenham’s youngsters travelled to the Cliff Hill Training Ground looking to build from their first win of the season the weekend before, but all eyes were on the Grecians, and how they would respond from a difficult fortnight or so.
And from the opening kick-off, Exeter got themselves into a nice rhythm, taking command of the middle third early, and stringing together some lovely moves despite not opening up the visitors’ backline.
The Robins on the other hand struggled to play out from the back and pass the halfway line, with the Devonians’ aggressive high press really applying pressure that forced them into mistakes and sloppy passes.
Despite seeing Alfie Clark forced off with an injury in the 13th minute, the home team’s initial momentum was never disrupted, and it was Michael Lilley who had his team’s first shot not long after, however, the midfielder’s low shot was comfortably smothered.
The forages forward contented to come from the side in red. On 19 minutes, Gribble’s men created two wonderful chances that should have resulted in a goal; Substitute Mitch Beardmore teeing up Jamie Nicholson at first, however, his shot was cleared off the line, before Beardmore crossed for Charlie Hanson from the resulting throw-in, but the forward saw his volley well saved.
Beardmore’s introduction saw Town really retreat onto the backfoot, and on the half-hour mark the replacement became instrumental again in his team’s build-up play when his pull back located Eli Collins on the edge of the 18-yard box, however, his strike was deflected wide.
As the half almost drew to a close, Collins and Hanson looked the likeliest to find a City breakthrough, and that should’ve perhaps come in the final action of the first period when Lilley’s smart ball retention allowed his teammates to fly forward once again. The ball eventually came to Harrison King, who crossed for Hanson, however, the striker's header was denied by the thankful goalkeeper.
The Grecians continued on the front foot after the interval, with Hanson twice going close inside the opening few minutes of the second half.
It became an eventful first 10 minutes following the restart as Exeter’s youngsters found themselves camped in the opposition half, however, a flurry of desperate blocks and decent saves kept matters goalless.
That was until the 55th minute, when the Devon club won a corner. Collins found Toby Nevile with the initial centre, and although the original effort was repelled, the ball was recycled, and Nevile crossed for Hanson who saw his shot stopped, before Beardmore seized on the loose ball and bundled the ball home to make it 1-0.
If that goal was meant to be the platform to build from for the hosts, their hard work was quickly undone a minute later in the most simplistic fashion. City’s defence enjoyed a spell of possession, before an innocuous header back saw no one take command of the situation. That allowed one away striker to nip in and tuck the ball past a forlorn Andrew Sowden in the Exeter goal, and restore parity out of nothing.
That setback however didn’t ruin any flow Gribble’s side had going forward, and they quickly began creating more chances in the hope of retaking the lead; Hanson shooting off target twice in as many minutes before Collins also tried his luck to no avail.
Ultimately, the home side were punished for their lack of a cutting edge, with Cheltenham turning the game on its head on 61 minutes. One long clearance from the ‘keeper fell for one of Town's winger, and his whipped ball was diverted in from five yards in what was a stunning piece of counter-attacking football.
In response, the Grecians made tactical switches in an attempt to draw level, however, it was Hanson who remained their biggest threat, and he headed the ball straight at the goalie from a free-kick after 78 minutes.
Moments later, however, Cheltenham increased their lead. A long throw from the right-hand touchline caused confusion in the City box, and after a poor clearance, the Robins’ left-back ghosted in unmarked at the back post, and he finished emphatically to make it 3-1.
But the home side continued to come forward, and they were presented with half an opening with two minutes remaining when Hanson shot from distance with the goalkeeper out of position and scrambling, however, the forward’s effort went wildly off-target.
Up the other end, Town looked to have increased their lead when play down the right saw their striker cross towards the middle for his teammate, but a fantastic block from King, who was round on the cover, stopped the resulting shot on goal, and eventually, the ball was cleared from danger.
Joe Wragg saw a late effort tipped around the post for Gribble’s men, and, as the contest entered injury time, there was still time for a period of controversy. Wragg latched onto a quickly taken free-kick, before sliding the ball past the away goalkeeper, however, the officials, after much deliberation, decided not to award the goal despite the ball appearing to hit the stanchion behind before bouncing out.
That incident rather summed up the day for Exeter’s youth side, who walked off the pitch hurt and disappointed that they let a match they were dominating slip when the full-time whistle eventually sounded.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: “That is a hard one to take for the players as we were completely dominant apart from the three chances they scored from. Even after the equaliser, we continued to create opportunities, and when we fell behind we created even more. And then when we eventually scored again that was ruled out.
“I’ve said it before but football comes down to the productivity in both boxes. We really had to take more of our chances, and if you don’t turn your dominance into goals, then you can get punished. It is a shame because of how hard the boys have worked, but that is a sign of where we are at right now.
“We didn’t deal with their direct play well enough. The goals we conceded lacked players willing to take control, which consequently led to errors and miscommunication. We have lost Alfie Pond now as he has been with the first team and loaned out from the club, and the players that are left now have to learn to play without Alfie, who was that player who took control, but we are excited about the learning opportunity that presents the players.
“We aren’t going to use our time off as an excuse. There were positives in our performance, and I thought our build-up play was excellent. The quality on the ball that we showed was very good, and as the game went on, our final ball was decent. Mitch Beardmore was outstanding when he came on because he provided 3/4 crosses that we could have scored from. Some of those players played their first 90 minutes since last month, and overall, I thought we looked fitter than what we did against AFC Bournemouth. Our speed of play allowed us to get into dangerous positions, but football is a simple game, and if you don’t score more than the opposition, the bit in between doesn’t count for anything.
“One game won’t define these players, but what will is how they respond to this disappointment. The game came down to technical execution, and I have to credit Cheltenham with how they took their opportunities and carried out their game plan. We have to be more resilient in one box, and more ruthless in the other. This is a great lesson for the group, and we’ll be better for it. As much as we would have liked to win, you can learn more from a defeat, and what we can learn from here will be better for us in the long run. But we have a tough test against Portsmouth next week, who have started the season strongly and are always one of the toughest to play against. We are as ready as we can be, and it is a game we are really looking forward to.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Harrison King, Toby Nevile, Zeph Collins, Max Edgecombe, Michael Lilley, Gabriel Billington, Eli Collins, Alfie Clark, Charlie Hanson, Jamie Nicholson
Subs: Joe O’Connor, Lewis McNab, Ed James, Joe Wragg, Mitch Beardmore