Exeter City’s under-18s suffered the pain of losing to an injury-time goal against Oxford United’s U18s in a tight Merit League One match at the Ian Moorcroft Stadium on Saturday.
The Grecians began on top, however, they were unable to make the most of a dominant first half an hour, with defender Ed James the closest to making the breakthrough.
The visitors worked their way into the game, and following a prominent spell just before half-time, they came closest to a breakthrough courtesy of forward Gatlin O'Donkor in the early moments of the second period.
The Yellows’ attacking threat continued to trouble Exeter’s backline as the game reached its’ climaxs, and following a quick throw-in, O’Donkor linked up with Josh Anifowose, who powered home the solitary goal to break City hearts, and hand them their first defeat in four matches.
Exeter City’s Head of Coaching and Player Development, Kevin Nicholson, took the ECFC youth side to Tiverton to welcome familiar foes, Oxford, in their penultimate Merit League One fixture.
Following a positive performance against Portsmouth U18s in their last competitive outing, as well as a constructive friendly game at Swansea City, the young Devonians were looking to get back to winning ways.
Despite lining up with three centre-backs, and without a recognised striker, the home side began in the ascendancy, and they were the first to fire a meaningful shot at goal following some patient play in midfield. Gabriel Billington combined with Alfie Clark, who in turn fed Alfie Cunningham, however, his shot went wide.
Cunningham’s second effort a few moments later again had United on the backfoot, but they responded with a surge forward themselves, however, Enrique Tiamuna’s 18th minute volley was off target.
Grecian attacker, Clark, continued to stretch the away backline, and his shot on the angle was well blocked, while, from a corner three minutes later, goalkeeper Fraser Barnsley had to be at his athletic best to keep matters goalless. Following a clearance from the initial set-piece, the rebound fell to Cunningham, who miscued an effort into the path of James. The centre-back flicked the ball towards the top corner, but the Yellows’ shot-stopper clawed the ball off the line.
A break in play around the half-hour mark allowed Oxford to regroup, and rather took the momentum away from Nicholson’s men. As both sets of players took to the pitch once again, it was United who controlled most of the play, and they were unlucky not to score following hesitation between Harry Lee and Jacca Cavendish.
As the break approached, the visitors came close to scoring once again when Anifowose twice tried his luck in as many minutes, before Yellows’ midfielder, Josh Johnson, blazed the final shot of the half over the crossbar.
The opening stages of the second period were slow and cagey, with neither side able to put together any meaningful attacks. Enrique Tiamuna’s 55th minute effort had Lee diving down to his left, while up the other end, James might’ve made better of a set-piece routine following Aamir Daniels’ deep cross.
The bulk of the chances however started falling Oxford’s way more frequently, and just before the clock ticked past the hour, they perhaps should have scored when a long ball found Will Owens in plenty of space. The winger’s pull back located O’Donkor, but a marvellous saving challenge from Exeter captain, Harrison King, kept it scoreless.
Both sides looked to alter things when they introduced personnel from the bench, and midway through the half, the teams traded chances, with King blasting over for the Devon club, while O’Donkor once again tested Lee.
It was United who came on the strongest though in the final quarter of an hour, and Anifowose kickstarted his side’s strong finish with a thumping header, which saw Lee produce a great save to deny.
Lee flew to his left not long after when he stopped an Owens free-kick, however, despite the ECFC supporters sensing that their team may be able to hold out against the waves of attacks on their goal, a moment of devastation arrived came two minutes into injury time.
Some quick thinking from the away side saw them move a throw in onto O'Donkor down the left flank. The forward powered his way to the byline, shrugging off a couple of challenges en route, before he laid a smart cut back into the danger area. Anifowose ran onto the inviting pass and smashed home an effort from 12 yards to make it 1-0, and send his teammates into ecstasy.
Defeat was a little harsh on Nicholson’s side, particularly after such a strong start, but they’ll be hoping to learn from this match quickly before they take to the pitch in their final Merit League One match away at AFC Bournemouth this coming weekend.
Exeter City’s Head of Coaching and Player Development, Kevin Nicholson: “I’m disappointed for the lads. It was quite a good game, and I didn’t think that either team deserved to win or lose it. It is a great lesson for the boys as a game can be 95 minutes long, and it is a real shame that we’ve made two or three mistakes all at once for them to score their goal. Conceding these late goals isn’t a concern because it is all about the players’ learning. Of course, we don’t want it to become a habit, but it isn’t a pattern, it’s just unfortunate it has happened in recent matches.
“I thought in the first five minutes we weathered a bit of a storm, but after that, in the first half, that was one of the best performances we have given all season. We were brave to play, and we were brave to win the ball back. What chances we had though were from the edge of the box, so we need to work on getting the ball into dangerous areas. In the second half, whether we tired or Oxford came on stronger I’m not sure, but we weren’t as comfortable in the game and weren’t on top like before.
“It can be a bit of a cliche, but when you have such dominance in a game, you think about the ruthlessness that Manchester City have, we didn’t hand out that kind of punishment. We were playing without a recognised striker, but I thought Alfie Clark and Alfie Cunningham did a real good job of linking play and they showed a lot of good stuff, we just didn’t have that final pass or cross in our game.
“I have to give massive credit for the way we played, and it was a really good performance. But the harsh reality is that we’ve come away with nothing. The first bit wrong with their goal is that we shouldn’t allow the pass to get them into position, and then Scott [Simmons] has stepped back thinking he’s fouled him which has allowed them to cross it. Pedro [Borges] has let his man run off him and it is a good finish to be fair, but we have had at least three opportunities to stop it from happening.
“For me, the challenge to the lads which I have set them is that they all need to stake a claim for the Devon Bowl cup final. A big positive is that Jacca Cavendish has now played his first 90 minutes for the Under-18s, and now is a chance for the rest of the squad to step up. Next up is Bournemouth, who we know well. They’ll play good football and will be an athletic and mobile team, so we will look to build on what we did here, dominate possession, and try and end what has been overall a really good season for us.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Harry Lee, Aamir Daniels, Scott Simmons, Ed James, Jacca Cavendish, Max Edgecombe, Gabriel Billington, Harrison King, Joe O’Connor, Alfie Cunningham, Alfie Clark
Subs: Andrew Sowden, Sam Joce, Pedro Borges, Joe Wragg