Exeter City’s under-18s endured a difficult day in Essex as they suffered a heavy 5-1 to Southend United under-18s in their second match of the Merit League on Friday afternoon.
Despite numerous disruptions in the lead up to kick-off, the Grecians took to a 3G pitch at Garon Park, and found themselves 2-0 down inside the first quarter of the game through goals from Brian Garzon and Max Fiddes.
A bright response from City saw them seize the initiative during the final 15 minutes of the first half, and they deservedly halved the deficit through Tom Dean’s well-placed free-kick.
However the momentum swung back in the Shrimpers’ favour in the second period, and strikes from Tayo Adedoja, Jacob Bland, and another from Garzon sealed the win for the home side.
Due to some difficult circumstances out of the players' control, Exeter’s youngsters travelled on their long journey to the south east on the day of the game in a convoy. Following their arrival, and having already faced a lot of adversity, the location of the game altered due to the state of the pitch, which consequently caused more disruption for the Devonians. With the kick-off time not changed, the away side was given just 15 minutes to warm up following their six-hour trip.
The troubling nature of the build-up took its toll on the players, and, for large parts of the opening exchanges, United, who began the game with a bunch of their second-year scholars, controlled a lot of the play.
In just the ninth minute, Southend won themselves a spot-kick when Garzon’s surge into the penalty area saw him tripped. The Shrimpers’ attacker picked himself and struck his attempt past Andrew Sowden to open the scoring.
The Grecians tried to respond, but the impetus remained with their opponents. On 23 minutes, the hosts doubled their advantage from a corner. Jaden Crowhurst’s set-piece was initially cleared, however, the ball fell to Garzon on the edge of the box. The striker’s effort was deflected, before the rebound fell to Fiddes, who turned the ball in from close range to make it 2-0.
To their credit, City had to dig in and remain in the contest through the testing period. A break in play on the half-hour mark allowed the players a chance to get together and organise themselves, which resulted in them having their brightest spell of the game.
Just a few minutes following their team talk, Exeter pulled a goal back in spectacular fashion when Dean tried his luck from a free-kick 25-yards out. The midfielder curled an unstoppable shot into the top corner to reduce the deficit and bring his team back into the contest.
Off the back of the goal, the Devonians ended up gaining more territory, and kept possession much better than they did during the opening 30 minutes. The visitors created more half-chances for them to level the contest, however, they were unable to take them, and ultimately, when the referee blew for the interval, it came at just the wrong time for the Grecians.
As a consequence, the beginning of the second period saw City lose their momentum, which allowed the Essex club the chance to regroup.
Thirteen minutes after the restart, United restored their two-goal cushion when Adedoja ran onto a defence-splitting through ball. Adedoja kept his cool and fired low past Sowden to make it 3-1 with more than half an hour still to play.
With no Exeter substitutes to turn to in an attempt to alter things, Southend remained in the ascendancy, and their own fresh legs from the bench helped them keep their tempo fast and their energy levels high.
Two minutes following his introduction, Bland extended his side’s lead with another goal from a corner. After another scramble in amongst a sea of bodies, Bland reacted quickest in front of goal to force the ball home to make it a five-goal game.
Just six minutes later, the Shrimpers added another to seal the three points courtesy of Garzon’s second of the game. Mo Amir combined with the forward, and his shot from 15-yards powered into the back of the net to make it 5-1, to round off a tough day for the Grecians’ next generation.
Exeter City’s Head of Coaching and Player Development, Kevin Nicholson: “I’m disappointed with the result, and some of the things that we did. We weren’t composed enough on the ball, and we needed to control our possession a bit more because it is hard to go toe-to-toe with a team who are as strong and physical as Southend. I would have liked it if we thought about the game a bit more. And then off the ball, it was a bit of a lesson in terms of if we press, we have to press together. But ultimately, the big positive is the attitude and togetherness of the players.
“There are times when you can go away and win 3-0 and enjoy the day out, but you won’t learn as much. I’m extremely proud of how the players handled themselves. It ended up being one of those uncomfortable lessons, but a really good learning experience. In any career, you have to learn to control what you can control, because as a professional, there can be a lot of noise out there - travel, media, and a lot of things you aren’t in control of - so you just have to make sure you are ready to do everything you can when you’re called upon.
“It is a great lesson. I remember the coach breaking down on an away trip to Northampton. These things happen and you learn from it. There are lots of good things to take from the day despite it being a difficult one for the boys. At no point did they let their heads drop, or get worked up with one another. A lot of credit has to go to the group, but ultimately everything caught up with them on a tough day.
“It is probably another good thing that we face another long away game next with a journey to Gillingham. They can take the lessons from here and apply them to that away trip. We have seen clips of them and I imagine it will be a similar test to the Southend one. We’ll end up going with a young team, perhaps even younger again, but it is a great experience for the Under-16s that are involved, and for the first-years, it is something different for them to face. With our games programme, you can face a lot of the same teams in the south west. But with the Merit League, when playing a team from the south east, it is a different demographic. You end up facing different styles, and different players, but those are the things that help Exeter City produce those players ready for Matt Taylor and the first-team environment.
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Aamir Daniels, Ed James, Sam Joce, Harrison King, Alfie Clark, Tom Dean, Pedro Borges, Mitch Beardmore, Alfie Cunningham, George Spencer