Two goals in the last 15 minutes saw Exeter City’s Under-18s succumb to a 2-0 defeat to rivals Plymouth Argyle under-18s in Merit League One on Saturday.
George Spencer’s missed penalty at the end of a tight first half paved the way for a more open game after the interval, before Alfie Clark saw red in the 69th minute as tempers flared during a competitive Devon Derby.
The Pilgrims made the most of the man advantage as Jeffrey Forkou fired home from close range, before Kieran Edworthy netted in injury time at the second attempt after his penalty was initially saved.
Exeter’s youth side were looking to build on last week’s encouraging performance against Gillingham U18s when they welcomed unbeaten Argyle to the Cliff Hill Training Ground on Saturday morning.
With the hosts’ squad stretched, they welcomed Gabriel Billington back from his injury lay-off, while only naming two substitutes which included young Under-15, Jacca Cavendish, once again.
But despite the adversities that faced the Grecians, they began proceedings well, and matched their opponents who had won both of their Merit League fixtures with a clean sheet coming into the derby.
But it was two clubs’ defences that were on top during the first quarter of the game, with Clark’s ambitious long-range strike the only notable effort as both sets of players were unable to find a way through.
In attack, Plymouth held their width well, with Brandon Pursall linking up with Jack Endacott down the left flank midway through the first half. The latter, however, could only send a half-volley into the side netting once free of his marker.
On 32 minutes, Pursall provided another dangerous cross when his free-kick found Angel Waruih at the back post. The midfielder kept the attack alive by shifting the ball into the centre, before a sharp snapshot was well stopped by Andrew Sowden to keep matters goalless.
Up the other end, Pedro Borges came close with a free-kick, however, most of the possession belonged to the Pilgrims. Borges’ heroic block repelled another Argyle effort after 38 minutes, while Sowden remained the busier goalkeeper as he saved low a few moments later.
The best opportunity however came as City attacked with the final flurry of the half. After moving the ball forward down the left, Harrison King broke into the penalty area before a raised boot caught his face as he tried to head the ball. The referee immediately pointed to the spot, and there were few complaints from either team. Spencer’s powerful 12-yard attempt however was saved well by Zak Baker, meaning when the half-time whistle sounded, it remained 0-0.
Another injury saw Tom Dean replace Mitch Beardmore at the start of the second period, which saw Argyle seize the momentum once again. Exeter’s Scott Simmons halted the advances of Jamal Salawu during the first few minutes after the restart, while Oscar Massey also went close for the visitors.
In response, Aamir Daniels’ mazy run saw him bring play up to the final third, before he laid the ball left to Borges. The midfielder, however, couldn’t keep his composures, and he snatched an effort over the crossbar to let Darren Way’s men off the hook.
With the game finely poised, both teams traded half-chances in the hope of a breakthrough. Just after the hour mark, great combination play between Max Edgecombe, Alfie Cunningham and substitute Dean saw the home side break forward down the left wing. The ball moved on to Spencer, however, the forward’s scramble on the floor meant he wasn’t able to shoot properly on goal, which allowed the Plymouth backline to clear their lines.
With the Grecians giving everything, the sight of Simmons and Daniels going down in tandem with cramp was a worrying sign. Cavendish already had come on for the returning Billington, meaning at one point, City only had nine men on the pitch.
The situation didn’t get much better with 21 minutes remaining when Daniels won a free-kick which prompted an episode of pushing and shoving between the two sets of players. Clark was adjudged to have taken things too far, and once the referee had calmed things down, he dismissed the Exeter winger, before handing out yellow cards to two of the Pilgrims.
With the additional space on the pitch, Argyle looked to up the ante. Forkou sliced a shot wide, before the attacker made amends a minute later. A deep cross located Freddie Issaka, who moved the ball onto his teammate. Forkou displayed great composure as he dribbled past a clambering Sowden, before the striker fired home to break the deadlock.
With Simmons now hobbling around in attack, the hosts tried to muster a response, and they were unlucky not to get a leveller from a set-piece. Baker missed his punch, which saw Simmons try to score with an audacious flick, that somehow was put behind for another corner.
The bright spell from the Grecians continued, and from another cross, captain King almost converted from close range but ultimately clattered into the post himself.
Plymouth, with the lead and man advantage, always held the initiative though, and twice in five minutes, they could have extended their cushion through Edworthy and Pursall.
The three points were finally assured by the away side though as the clock ticked past 90 minutes. Daniels hesitated on the ball which allowed the Pilgrims to steal possession and quickly break forward. Edworthy ran onto a precise through pass before reaching the ball ahead of Sowden to draw the foul. Edworthy failed with his penalty as Sowden saved well, however, the replacement tapped in the rebound to make it 2-0 and seal the victory that takes Way's side to the top of the Merit League standings.
Exeter City’s Head of Coaching and Player Development, Kevin Nicholson: “I am really proud of the boys. I’m happy with how they applied themselves because it would have been easy to down tools being up against it. To end up with 10 men on the pitch, end up with an Under-16 who had cramp in attack, and to have a 14-year-old come on at centre-back, to source chances from it, credit has to go to everyone involved. It was a great performance, and we were unlucky to lose. But it was quite pleasing to see how disappointed the boys were at full-time.
“It is not often you go down to 10 men, and it is not a regular thing to lose an important player at half-time. We had a young team out, and they probably haven’t had an experience like they had on Saturday, but they handled it brilliantly. Scott Simmons hasn’t trained with us regularly, but he’s come in played three times, and was excellent here, and Aamir Daniels has continued to grow but unfortunately cramped up towards the end. But playing all these games within a short space of time is all part of the process, and it is all good for the players’ learning; learning how to condition themselves, learning about nutrition and hydration. The first team play 50-odd games a season, so it is demonstrating to the boys what it takes.
“I’m not one to dwell on things, but the missed penalty will be a learning experience for George Spencer. The boys competed well in the first half, but you could see the difference in 18-year-olds against 16-year-olds. We had to move the ball better because we couldn’t bully them, but on some occasions, we did do that, and it was a bit of a shame we couldn’t score the penalty just before half-time. Alfie Clark has apologised for his red card, but he felt hard done by because he felt he did the same as some of the Plymouth players. But the lesson to take from that is don’t allow the referee an opportunity to send you off.
“The Merit League is what our games programme needs. It is a more competitive competition, and with the south east teams, you can face different styles and different players. What I’ve noticed is the level of athleticism is a step up. We have a ‘nice’ group, we are a ‘nice’ football club, so facing these different teams is great for the boys’ experience. We had a bit of a shock when we played Cambridge and Southend, but we came back strong against Gillingham, and I’d put this performance on a par with that. What I’d like now is more consistent quality from us, and more bravery to play.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Aamir Daniels, Scott Simmons, Gabriel Billington, Max, Edgecombe, Harrison King, Pedro Borges, Mitch Beardmore, Alfie Clark, Alfie Cunningham, George Spencer
Subs: Jacca Cavendish, Tom Dean