Exeter City’s Under-18s bowed out of the FA Youth Cup as they lost 3-1 to Oxford United Under-18s at St James Park on Tuesday evening.
Despite a bright first half from the Devonians, who came close through an Ed James header, United opened the scoring through Aidan Elliott-Wheeler’s powerful strike.
Josh Johnson doubled the Yellows advantage in the opening moments of the second period, however, a courageous reply from the Grecians saw them pull a goal back with 16 minutes remaining when Mitch Beardmore finished off a lovely move to score on the angle.
But all of City’s hope was extinguished in the closing moments when U’s forward, Gatlin O’Donkor capitalised on Harry Lee’s miscontrol to make it 3-1, to seal his team’s spot in the competition’s fourth round.
Head of Coaching, Brad Miller, made three changes to the Grecians’ last starting XI in the FA Youth Cup, with Sam Joce, Scott Simmons and Alfie Clark all dropping out for Max Edgecombe, Pedro Borges and Sonny Cox.
A bright start to proceedings saw Exeter’s youngsters advance into several dangerous positions early on courtesy of their industrious possession. Twice Cox was denied by Yellows goalkeeper Fraser Barnsley, while full-backs, Harrison King and Edgecombe were already advancing high up down the flanks.
With Miller opting for a three-pronged attack, Cox crossed for George Spencer in the eighth minute, however, Exeter’s top goalscorer in this season’s cup run could only glance his header wide of the far upright.
While United struggled to get any real foothold in the contest, the attacking pressure kept on coming from the hosts, and both Borges and King had bright moments inside the opposition penalty area, however, they came to nothing in the end.
In fact Oxford’s first real attack came at the midpoint of the first period when Harry Lee was adjudged to have handled a routine catch outside of his area. U’s attacker, O’Donkor went direct at goal with the free-kick, however, the deflection off the bottom of the wall diverted the ball into the side netting.
From the resulting corner, visiting captain, George Franklin fired a snapshot towards the bottom corner, but a fantastic diving save tipped the ball behind. Johnson then bundled the ball wide at the far post from the next United set-piece.
That sparked a reaction from the Devonians, and following more intricate build up play, they won themselves a corner in the 25th minute. Climbing highest, James, beat his marker to Beardmore’s corner, but an astonishing save from Barnsley kept matters goalless somehow.
A little later, some lovely play down the right saw Cox sprint onto a smart ball down the line. The forward cut inside and moved play onto Borges, before he teed up Beardmore. The playmaker let fly from the right side of the box, but his curling effort was denied by another agile stop from the ‘keeper.
But while all the impetus was clearly with the Exeter youngsters, the SJP crowd were stunned 10 minutes before half-time when it was Oxford who broke the deadlock. Following some determined play down the right side, the away team moved the ball onto O’Donkor. His spirited run saw him dribble his way into the centre of the pitch, before he played a smart reverse ball into the path Elliott-Wheeler. With no one tracking his run, the midfielder moved into shooting position, before powering the ball past Lee’s despairing dive to hand his team a slightly fortuitous lead.
And while frustrations were creeping into those watching on, tensions on the pitch got a little heated towards the end of the first 45, with Spencer picking up an unfortunate booking when he felled his opponent when going up for an aerial challenge.
But that energy was transferred into positive output immediately after the restart, however, Borges squandered the opportunity to shoot following bright play from Cox.
The home team were made to rue that missed opportunity moments later when the U’s doubled their lead. Johnson picked up possession on the left and dribbled towards Gabriel Billington. The Oxford player shifted the ball onto his right foot, and curled a low effort out of Lee’s reach and into the back of the net for 2-0 much to the dismay of the Exeter backline.
City looked for an immediate response, and once again Cox and Spencer were at the thick of it. Cox found his strike partner inside the 18-yard box, before some neat footwork gave Spencer half a yard to fire at goal, but Franklin’s brave block repelled the danger.
But while Miller would have hoped for a goal on that occasion, the home side should have pulled one back just before the hour mark. Some lovely skill on the left side saw Borges dance around a defender with consummate ease before he was tackled to the ground. Referee Phillip Eddie had no hesitation in pointing to the spot, which allowed Cox to try his luck from 12-yards. With a Jorginho-style run up, the attacker’s attempt, however, flew over the crossbar and out for a goal kick.
In what became a more even contest, the two sides began to trade chances frequently. While Erion Zabeli was denied by the feet of Lee down one end, in front of the Big Bank, King had another penalty shout turned down by the officials.
Miller turned to his bench and brought on Clark to supply down energy down the right flank, but while that added something to the Exeter ranks, O’Donkor was still threatening for Oxford, and he saw one curling effort comfortably saved.
Joce was introduced into the fray on 72 minutes for the Grecians, which prompted a bit of a reshuffle across the pitch. However, that tactical switch proved a masterstroke, as a few minutes later, the deficit was halved.
Billington, now operating in the middle of the park located Beardmore on the right. City’s number 11 dribbled around his man and fired a menacing cross-shot towards the far stick, and with his centre getting a slight nick, the ball nestled inside the far post much to the delight of the 283 supporters watching inside the stadium.
The Devonians continued to go through the gears, and piled the pressure onto their opponents. Aamir Stanford-Daniels flashed a shot wide, while neat build-up play from Billington and Beardmore fed Borges 10-yards out, but his shot was quickly closed down.
While Miller’s men made several entries into the United area, Exeter were unable to really test Barnsley as time ticked down. Another precise passing move saw the ball moved onto Stanford-Daniels on 85 minutes, but his shot only won the team a corner. A minute before the end, Clark and King combined nicely, but the resulting low cross evaded all of the red jerseys that flooded into the danger area.
The luck that deserted home side was rather summed up when the game ticked into injury time when the U’s made sure of the result with their third goal. A loose touch from Lee saw the goalie robbed of possession by O’Donkor on the edge of the area. A sharp swivel from the Yellows forward saw him curl the ball past a stricken Lee and into the bottom corner to restore the two-goal lead and confirm that it was the Oxford name that would be in the fourth round of the competition.
Exeter City Under-18s: Harry Lee, Harrison King, Max Edgecombe, Ed James, Gabriel Billington, Pedro Borges, Joe O’Connor, Mitch Beardmore, Aamir Stanford-Daniels, George Spencer, Sonny Cox
Subs: Andrew Sowden, Sam Joce, Scott Simmons, Jake Richards, Tom Dean, Alfie Clark, Alfie Cunningham
Oxford United Under-18s: Fraser Barnsley, Ibrahim Sank, Rashane Maxwell, Josh Johnson, George Franklin, Erion Zabeli, Aidan Elliott-Wheeler, Tobias Brenan, Gatlin O’Donkor, Zaide Took-Oxley, Enrique Tiamuna
Subs: Monty Marriott, Harrison Mole, Kasway Burton, Joshua Iheanacho, Aaron Lacey
Referee: Phillip Eddie