A late goal denied Exeter City’s under-18s victory for the second week running after they drew 2-2 in a Merit League clash with Portsmouth under-18s on Saturday.
A bright start saw the Grecians go 1-0 inside 10 minutes thanks to captain Harrison King before the lead was doubled through George Spencer.
Pompey clawed their way back into the contest and halved the deficit midway through the first half when Mitch Aston finished off a deadly break.
City appeared to have weathered a storm in the second half, however, the home side were finally rewarded for all of their attacking pressure when a trialist lobbed Harry Lee in stoppage time meaning the points were shared.
Off the back of a challenging midweek friendly match against Hartpury College, Exeter’s Head of Coaching and Player Development, Kevin Nicholson, challenged his players to ‘bounce back’ with a positive performance in Hampshire.
In reaction to Nicholson’s words, the visitors started strong and controlled play well. Out of possession, striker George Spencer epitomised his team’s energy and hunger by pressing from the front, which caused the opposition problems and allowed the Grecians to win the ball back quickly.
City asserted their dominance by deservedly opening the scoring in the 10th minute courtesy of some bright moments from their skipper. King made progress down the left flank, before the midfielder cut inside and curled an unstoppable strike inside the far post to make it 1-0.
The Devonians continued to dictate matters, and they never took their foot off the gas despite taking an early lead.
Just five minutes later, the advantage was doubled due to another purposeful drive forward by the Exeter midfield. A counter-attack allowed Pedro Borges to dribble past a defender and into the penalty area, before Spencer took the ball from his teammate eight yards out. The striker's effort proved too good for Portsmouth goalkeeper, Toby Steward, and found the bottom corner to give Nicholson’s men a two-goal cushion.
The away side maintained their control, but they were hit with a sucker-punch at the midpoint of the first period. Pompey sprung forward and Aston’s calm play meant he was able to finish well into the far corner to bring his side back into the contest.
City were rocked because of the goal, and their rhythm and flow were never the same after they conceded.
While the Grecians struggled, the confidence of the Hampshire club grew. With Portsmouth attacking duo Jamie Howell and Gabriel Kamavuako becoming more and more influential, Lee was required to pull off some wonderful saves to keep City ahead, while Scott Simmons also rescued his team at times with come decent defensive blocks.
That pattern continued after half-time, however, Exeter were able to create more going forward by the means of counter-attacking swiftly. While they could have added to their goal tally, they were unfortunate not to be allowed a third when a flowing move allowed King to shoot past Steward once again, however, the officials ruled the score out for offside.
The hosts enjoyed the better spells of possession and created chances more frequently, with a combination of good goalkeeping and some last-ditch defending the only reason it remained 2-1 as the contest moved onto its conclusion.
While Max Edgecombe and Tom Dean were introduced from the Devon club’s bench to help try and shore things up at the back, Portsmouth ultimately found a way to breach the defence once more as the clock ticked into injury time.
A long ball from Jack Fox allowed the Pompey trialist to reach the ball ahead of the advancing Lee, before he lifted the ball over the stricken shot-stopper and into the back of the net to level the game.
Although that goal denied Nicholson’s team all three points, and a chance to move up the Merit League One table, it still means they have only suffered one defeat in their last five matches, and they can remain optimistic before they take the pitch once again.
Exeter City’s Head of Coaching and Player Development, Kevin Nicholson: “It would be hard to argue that Portsmouth didn’t deserve their equaliser. In the last half hour, we were almost hanging on so their late goal, although disappointing, is very much deserved and they perhaps might feel they could’ve and should’ve won the game with the chances they created.
“The positive is that we will take good result, at a place it can be difficult to get anything from. From a game development point of view, we need to be better than what we showed, and the first goal we conceded shouldn’t have knocked us like it did. But up to then we were good. My challenge to the players now is to continue to be braver for the rest of the season, because we have two league games left, and then a Devon Bowl final where there are places up for grabs. Overall, there is plenty to learn, but plenty of things we did well as well.
“In football things will go against you. Sometimes you have got to take that disappointment and move on. The boys can draw inspiration from the first team because they have shown they are never beaten, and that is a great attribute to have. This will disappoint the players conceding late on again because that is now four points they’ve dropped in the past two games. But they are a young group, and they will work towards that, and having setbacks is all part of the process. There are different types of game management, and in the Under-18s set up, I want them to keep the ball better. But it is good practise, and playing under that pressure is a great experience for them.
“We have a friendly lined up against Swansea coming up. We have a weekend off and then we play again on the 23rd April. For any young player, it has been a long season, but for the first years, this is the first time they have been full-time. It can be a steep learning curve, and at points, physically and mentally you need a break. But I’ve challenged the players to finish the season strong. You can’t have any ‘off’ days, so we will have a few days rest, and then continue to develop and prepare ourselves for the final load of matches.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Harry Lee, Aamir Daniels, Scott Simmons, Ed James, Sam Joce, Alfie Clark, Gabriel Billington, Harrison King, Joe O’Connor, Pedro Borges, George Spencer
Subs: Max Edgecombe, Tom Dean