Exeter City’s under-18s began 2022 with a 2-0 away defeat to AFC Bournemouth under-18s in the Youth Alliance South West division on Saturday.
The Cherries opened the scoring after half an hour when they finished a well-worked move with a cool one-on-one finish past Andrew Sowden.
City remained in the contest without showing top quality in possession, however, 15 minutes from time, the league leaders sealed the result by doubling their lead.
Despite the visitors threatening through set-pieces towards the end, Bournemouth saw out the victory, giving themselves a three-point buffer to the Grecians at the top of the league standings.
ECFC U18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble, took his young squad to the Dorset in a mouth-watering top-of-the-table clash following their return from their winter break.
Personnel was a little thin on the ground for Exeter, with several players playing out of position, however, they stuck to their gameplan and allowed the home side plenty of ball during the opening stages.
With the intention of allowing Bournemouth little space, the Cherries played mostly in front of Devonians, who themselves looked threatening on the break when they were able to carry the ball out of defence.
Despite some unforced errors from either team, a bright moment came on the 20-minute mark when Charlie Hanson led a City foray forward. Despite reaching a threatening position, however, the forward’s final ball was too heavy, and eventually, the attack broke down.
Five minutes later, Hanson was at the centre of some promising play once again, with the striker getting himself within shooting range. Hanson was brought down 20 yards out, but the referee allowed play to continue and told the Grecian youngster to get back to his feet.
After half an hour, the deadlock was broken following a bad decision defensively by the away team. With Gribble’s men stepping out to press their opponents, the Dorset club worked the ball into their attacking midfielder, before he slid a pass into his attacker. The resulting one v one led to a well-executed finish, meaning the best bit of play in the half resulted in full exploitation of a bad decision for 1-0.
In response, Exeter failed to make the most of their possession, and consequently never made enough entries into the final third. Courtesy of the lack of quality on the ball at the end of the first period, it gave City’s coaching staff plenty to think about at the interval.
The resulting half-time message led to a brighter period after the restart, as the Devon outfit got into some dangerous positions with an equaliser appearing to be on the cards.
Alfie Clark started influencing the game more on the left flank, while Sonny Cox was able to get on the ball in advanced positions more often. Cox twice found himself with shooting opportunities, with his better effort coming from the edge of the box, before being repelled by a decent stop.
As the game progressed chances became less frequent, and with time starting to go against the Grecians, they became more aggressive with and without the ball.
That meant the team went to press as a whole, and in the 75th minute, the Cherries took full advantage of the extra space in behind to finish well and double the advantage.
As a result of the conceded effort, Gribble’s team conjured up some half-chances through set pieces, however, the majority of them were either smothered or cleared away to safety.
Exeter substitute, Jamie Nicholson, arguably came the closest to pulling a goal back for the Devonians when some neat play allowed him to shoot from distance, however, his strike went just off-target.
That meant that when the full-time whistle sounded, the Bournemouth clean sheet remained intact, and their two-goal victory meant they were able to take an outright lead at the top of the South West division, with both clubs having just four matches remaining.
Exeter City Under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble: "The match was extremely similar to the FA Youth Cup game, and a poor decision from us to step out allowed them that first goal. When we went aggressive they punished us, and that is what you get when you play against a good side. There can be no excuses really.
"Toby Nevile was our only recognised defender, so we had players playing out of position. I can't fault our intent, and our gameplan worked when we won the ball back, but we never looked like we would score through our own play. It was a good effort but ultimately we came up short.
"We were the nearly men; We nearly scored, we nearly pressed at the right times, and we nearly made the right passes. We shouldn't go into these games with fear because we have shown we can compete against the better sides. We were a bit timid in comparison to Bournemouth and just looked a yard off it which was disappointing.
"There are four games left to play, and the players believe they are building towards a performance. Every game in this league is different, but it can help build momentum. The last time we lost, we then went and responded well and put together a good run. I have no doubt the players will respond once again. The boys got a lot out of the game here, and if you look at the current first-team, they had the likes of Harry Kite playing at centre-back, and here we had Gabriel Billington and Harrison King playing a centre-back for us so they learnt to be adaptable which is good.
"We didn't have our usual training time between Christmas and New Year because of the COVID protocols, so a bit of training time with the boys will be good. It will be extra rehab time for some of them which is going to help, and by the time we play again, hopefully, we will have more bodies back and players playing in more familiar roles. Scenarios, where you don't have games in a short space of time, enables you to put work in with the players, and we'll be looking to do that ahead of our next match."
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Toby Nevile, Gabriel Billington, Harrison King, Alfie Clark, Mitch Beardmore, Joe O’Connor, A.Trialist, Sonny Cox, Charlie Hanson, George Spencer
Subs: Alfie Cunningham, Jamie Nicholson, Tom Dean