Exeter City’s under-18s produced another encouraging performance in their 2-2 draw away at Cheltenham Town U18s on Saturday.
Rio Spencer’s close-range effort had the Robins ahead on 17 minutes, before Tom Dean’s penalty levelled matters just before the break.
Theo Cutler’s fine form for the Grecians continued when he scored in the early moments of the second half, but Tom King’s 76th-minute strike meant the points were shared.
ECFC’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Kevin Nicholson, took his young side up the M5 to face a Cheltenham team looking to secure their first win of the season.
It was City though who started the stronger, with Cutler leading the charge for the visitors. In just the eighth minute, the forward received the ball six yards out, however, goalkeeper Jude Franks managed to turn the ball past the post with his feet.
Town reacted with a foray forward of their own. Spencer and King combined, before the latter rounded Lewis McNab and sent the ball goalwards, only for Jacca Cavendish to race back and clear from under his own crossbar.
That proved to only be a warning sign, as moments later the deadlock was broken emphatically; Spencer reacted quickest to a loose ball following a recovery tackle by Pedro Borges, and the Robins attacker smashed the ball into the top corner for 1-0.
While Cheltenham were unable to threaten McNab’s goal again courtesy of some inaccurate shooting, the Devonians upped the ante as they half went on.
Alfie Cunningham saw his improvised effort parried away, but, in the 39th minute, Exeter’s youngsters were finally rewarded for their endeavour.
Some nice link-up play saw Cutler hauled to the floor by Tom Spencer, which saw the referee blow his whistle and point to the penalty spot. Dean kept his cool and placed the spot-kick into the bottom corner to restore parity.
In the second period, it was the Grecians who once again seized control. Following George Spencer's introduction from the bench, the replacement managed to locate his strike partner with a precise cross in the 55th minute. Cutler adjusted his body and tucked the ball past Franks to hand his team a deserved lead.
The away side maintained their positive play, and Borges slammed a shot into the side netting in their next attack, before Cutler’s flick-on was denied by another Franks save.
With 14 minutes remaining, the fourth goal of the day came at the other end. A looping free-kick fell nicely for King, and the Robin slotted the ball into the back of the net to set up a thrilling finale.
City reacted once more and desperately looked for a winner as time ticked down. George Spencer on another day might have had two goals in as many minutes, but both the substitute’s header and shot were off target.
Exeter’s set-pieces put their opponents on the backfoot, however, they were unable to turn the ball home courtesy of some brave and desperate defensive efforts from the home side’s backline.
The final play of the game saw Borges get himself within shooting distance, before he let fly with a powerful drive. Tom Spencer’s heroic block though summed up his side’s solidity in the final moments, leaving both sides going home with a point apiece.
Exeter City’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Kevin Nicholson: “I’m really pleased with the lads. We set them some challenges before the game to exploit Cheltenham, get on the ball, and challenged them with their decision-making. And the boys followed those really well, as we dominated the majority of the game.
“We went 1-0 down when they hit us on the counter, but the players reacted well to that. Down the right side between Harrison King, Tom Dean, and Ed James backing them up, we had lots of opportunities to put crosses into the box.
“We missed a few chances, and we should have put the game out of sight in the second half, but we made some poor decisions. At 2-2, we had a great opportunity to go and get a winner, but ultimately, at full-time, as a group, we were disappointed not to win it despite our dominance.
“We’re really pushing the players in how they come across as people, and then translating that onto the football pitch. Even when things went against us, we reacted positively, and even when we missed chances, we continued pushing forward. I’m extremely pleased with the mentality the team showed.
“Missing chances are just as big a moments as conceding, and games are won and lost in both boxes, but we, as coaches, are trying to emphasise that to the lads. But my overall reflection is that it was a really positive experience and we made great strides forward, and we can see that the players are taking notice of what we are telling them in their training sessions. If the team continues that trend, then we may see ourselves getting into our stride at an early point of the season.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Lewis McNab, Sam Joce, Ed James, Jacca Cavendish, Harrison King, Jake Richards, Gabriel Billington, Tom Dean, Pedro Borges, Alfie Cunningham, Theo Cutler
Subs: Joe Wragg, George Spencer