A late equaliser denied Exeter City’s under-18s all three points on Saturday as they shared the spoils in an eventful 3-3 draw with Stevenage under-18s at the Cliff Hill Training Ground.
Gabriel Billington opened the scoring for the Grecians, before Alfie Cunningham doubled their advantage just before half-time when he finished off a sweeping move.
An own goal 20 minutes into the second period made it 3-0, however, the away side’s substitutes made a positive impact, and they played a huge part when Finlay Johnson pulled a goal back.
Johnson scored another 10 minutes later, before replacement Mackise Evans levelled matters in dramatic fashion three minutes from time to leave things all square.
Looking to build from their victory away at AFC Wimbledon U18s last time out, Exeter’s youngsters were hoping to continue their climb up the Merit League One standings.
Despite the defences being largely on top during the opening stages, City were enjoying the lions’ share of possession, with the return of Billington in a more familiar centre-midfield role a key component in that.
With Stevenage wasting a free-kick chance, the better openings fell the hosts’ way, and it was Pedro Borges who made the opposition goalkeeper work first when his curler was denied by a diving save.
The Devon outfit began to get on the front foot, and their ball retention became too much for Boro. Harrison King and Mitch Beardmore combined 18 minutes in, but the latter’s cross failed to find Borges, who only needed a faint touch to divert the ball in.
The Grecians often pressured Stevenage into mistakes when they pressed high, and that was the case for the opening goal. The visitors looked to build from deep, by Billington stole in and intercepted the ball before he was clean through. His initial effort was well stopped, but the playmaker bundled home the rebound to make the breakthrough just before the 20-minute mark.
In spite of the Hertfordshire club surging forward in reply, Exeter remained in control. George Spencer twice had the opponent’s backline desperately scrambling the ball to safety, while Borges forced Elyh Harrison into a comfortable stop.
Boro created their best chance in the 37th minute when a cross from the left flank found Max Granville, however, his strike was well saved by Harry Lee.
Five minutes later though, City doubled their lead with a superb bit of play. Billington’s defence-splitting through ball found the run of Beardmore, before the winger’s low centre was met by Cunningham, who tapped in delighting the home crowd.
The final few minutes of the half proved to be rather manic as neither team particularly looked like they wanted the break to come. Home goalkeeper, Lee, saved well at his near post from Johnson’s powerful shot, whilst up the other end, King and his teammates were left aggrieved when the captain marched into the 18-yard box and appeared to have drawn a foul, however, the officials waved away the penalty shouts, and the two teams went into the break at 2-0.
Stevenage looked to alter things with a double substitution at the break, and the contest became evenly balanced during the first 10 minutes of the second half.
The Grecians themselves made changes too, and they almost paid off immediately when Ed James headed wide on 57 minutes.
Joe O’Connor’s acrobatic attempt went narrowly wide in Exeter’s next attack, but in the 65th minute they managed to score a third when Joe Wragg, fresh from the bench, surged down the right. His dangerous cross was deflected in via Boro boot, to extend the cushion.
The visitors responded well, and Owen Cochrane’s long-range effort was a sign of things to come as the South East club looked to increase the tempo and exploit the space they started to find out wide.
At the midpoint of the second period, they clawed a goal back when Tyrique Tekasala’s overlap allowed them to find another pocket down the right. The full-back's pass inside found Johnson, who calmly tucked away his opportunity to make it 3-1 and test the nerves of the Devon side.
Johnson’s energy was the key to the Stevenage attack and he saw another shot parried away by Lee a few minutes later. Down the other end, Scott Simmons could only send a header wide.
But in the 78th minute, it was the away side who netted again when a long ball down the side carved open the Grecians defence. Determined play from Matty Gilbert meant he could pick out Johnson, who took one touch to set himself, before he found the back of the net with a sweet strike to make it a five-goal game.
The momentum was truly with the Hertfordshire club, while their opponents struggled to keep the ball and give themselves a foothold in the game. The threat that Boro’s Evans possessed was becoming more and more apparent as he began to take advantage of a tiring backline. In the 82nd minute, Evans fired over.
Five minutes later, however, the comeback was complete when a long clearance fell to the feet of Evans once again. The substitute breezed past his opponents to the edge of the area, before he curled in a fine effort inside the far post, past an unmoved Lee, to bring the scores level.
Similarly to the end of the first half, the final moments of the game were frantic. Wragg displayed a turn of pace when he intercepted a pass out wide, before the wideman cut inside, but he failed to find the target with his shot.
The away side, on the other hand, squandered the best chance of a winner in injury time when Tekasala linked up with Harry Giroud. The forward however volleyed over from eight yards when it looked easier to score.
That meant the points were shared as the referee blew for full time. A frustrated City side left the pitch disappointed that they couldn’t register the win despite being in control for long periods, however, they’ll be hoping to put things right this coming weekend when they travel to familiar foes, Portsmouth U18s.
Exeter City Under-18s: Harry Lee, Aamir Daniels, Scott Simmons, Ed James, Sam Joce, Mitch Beardmore, Harrison King, Pedro Borges, Gabriel Billington, Alfie Cunningham, George Spencer
Subs: Andrew Sowden, Jacca Cavendish, Joe O’Connor, Joe Wragg