Exeter City’s Under-18s rounded off their fixtures in this season's Youth Alliance South West division with a comprehensive 6-1 victory over Swindon Town U18s on Monday.
In adverse weather conditions, the Grecians used the wind advantage they possessed to start quickly, with goals from George Spencer, Ed James and Charlie Hanson handing them a three-goal lead inside the game’s opening quarter.
James added another just before the interval, however, the Robins hit back with a goal of their own just two minutes into the second period to make it 4-1.
City’s bright response saw James complete an unlikely hattrick in the 50th minute, before Hanson added the Devonians’ sixth to ensure his team finished third in the final league standings, to guarantee the club would be participating in this year's Merit League One.
Following the postponement of the original fixture at the weekend courtesy of Storm Eunice sweeping across the country, Exeter and Swindon agreed that their final Youth Alliance match would take place at the Cliff Hill Training Ground a few days later, hampering the preparations for both sets of players.
But despite all of the disruption, and with Youth Team Head Coach Chad Gribble not in attendance, the home team began proceedings brightly as they played with the wind during the first 45 minutes.
The Grecians’ aggressive approach had Town pegged back for long spells in the opening period, and with just 10 minutes on the clock, City took a deserved lead through some direct play; Goalkeeper Andrew Sowden cleared the ball long which allowed Hanson to win an aerial battle against a defender. The attacker's flick-on fell into the path of strike-partner Spencer, whose cool left-foot finish was too good for the visiting goalkeeper.
With the Devon outfit in the ascendency, they almost doubled their lead just a few moments later when a short-corner routine allowed Jamie Nicholson to create space and fire at goal. His thumping effort ricocheted off of the crossbar, and the Robins breathed a sigh of relief as it remained 1-0.
However, there was no respite as the second goal of the day arrived just five minutes later from another short corner. Exeter’s Eli Collins and Nicholson combined, before a dangerous cross was converted in front of goal by centre-back James to make it 2-0.
The commanding performance Gribble’s men gave inside the first 20 minutes was emphasised with a third goal just before the midpoint of the first half. Hanson received the ball from his midfield, and with his back to goal, the forward wriggled free of his marker to turn and fire a low shot into the back of the net.
The contest threatened to settle down as the first period went on, however, just before half-time, the hosts added to their goal tally when Eli Collins’ set-piece located James, whose header increased the Grecians’ cushion to four.
The dominant showing from City’s players meant they headed into the break with a comfortable margin, but that didn’t stop their opponents from giving a positive reaction after the restart, with Town utilising the strong gusts that were now in their favour.
The weather conditions came to their aid just a few minutes into the second period when a ball over the top led to confusion in the Exeter backline. James and Sowden failed to communicate, which allowed one of the Robins' strikers to nip in first and tuck the ball home to reduce the deficit to three.
However, whatever hope was given to the away team through their goal was quickly extinguished by a quick response from the Devon club. In the 50th minute, Collins delivered a menacing free-kick into the penalty box, and James helped the ball in from close range to unbelievably complete the defender’s hattrick.
The game was sealed on the hour mark through Hanson once again. Some intricate play sent the attacker through one-on-one with the opposition's goalie, and Hanson kept his nerve to convert his effort to make it 6-1.
The three points and impressive performance meant Gribble’s men climbed back up the standings to third in the final South West league placings on 32 points, in the end just three points off league winners AFC Bournemouth U18s. With their place in Merit League One confirmed, the Grecians will face the newly crowned South West champions, alongside familiar rivals, Plymouth Argyle, Oxford United and Portsmouth, as well as the highest-ranked clubs from the South East division in a nine-game championship, which begins with a home clash with Cambridge United’s Under-18s this coming weekend.
🗣 Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble
“There are a lot of things to be pleased about from this game. We never got to prepare for it properly because of the adverse weather conditions we have had. We had to cancel a training session Friday, had the game postponed on Saturday, and did no real prep going into the game on Monday. What it showed was that the players have a good understanding of how we want them to play, and how that matches up against an opponent. I wasn’t at the game, so credit has to go to the players for putting into practise everything they have learnt, and figuring out and solving the problems that were in front of them.
“It has been a crazy few days, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a training session cancelled because of a storm. But it was unsafe for the players to travel here and go out in it, and it was always a high risk for Swindon to travel all that way down to us in what was the worst affected areas of the country. It was the right decision to postpone the game, and the feedback I have received from the coaches that were present was that the players put in a mature performance on Monday and handled the conditions much better. Despite Swindon coming out after half-time looking for a response, they managed the game well in a testing second period. That is a good step for us to make in comparison to the way we played against Plymouth, and this will bring the group some confidence. I’ve talked before about being competitive in games recently but not using the ball well enough, but here we played in the right areas and scored a good variety of goals.
“It is always a funny time of the season. The second years are more often than not out on loan, so now we are moving into that realm of first-year scholars and Under-16s, so it is a bit of a reset for us. We know that the Merit League is incredibly challenging, and the teams from the South East are extremely tough, but I love the challenge it provides our players and I’m looking forward to it.
“Cambridge are usually in Merit League One, and that tells you something about our next game. They have had a good FA Youth Cup run this season, as well as a decent run in the Youth Alliance Cup. We’ve played them in recent years. They are always a strong opponent, with some good players and some physical players. We have a rough idea of what we might face, but we want to keep it about ourselves, and we will look to impose ourselves on the game and get on the front foot as we do in every match we play.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Harrison King, Sam Joce, Ed James, Jamie Nicholson, Tom Dean, Eli Collins, Pedro Borges, Alfie Clark, Charlie Hanson, George Spencer
Subs: Dan Layer, Mitch Beardmore