Exeter City’s under-18s secured their first point of Merit League One with a fine performance and 1-1 draw away at Gillingham under-18s on Saturday.
Despite playing against the strong winds in the first period, chances were rather limited for either side until a Gills penalty on the stroke of half-time gave them an advantage.
However, after the interval, with the teams swapping ends, the Grecians had to wait until the closing stages to restore parity when substitute Alfie Cunningham bundled home a close-range shot into the bottom corner.
Despite travelling up to Kent on the morning of the match, City’s youngsters remained optimistic they would be able to give a good account of themselves following last week’s difficulties against Southend.
The hosts started the game with a lot of their second-year scholars, while the Devon outfit included a good mix of first-years and Under-16s; Charlie Hanson the only senior player involved, while Under-15, Jacca Cavendish, was included in the U18s matchday squad for the first time.
Following their long journey eastwards, Exeter’s youngsters began understandably slowly, and with Gillingham playing with the help of the blustery conditions, it was they who looked to make an early breakthrough.
But despite facing a real test against a physical, strong and more experienced opponent, the visitors stood up to the challenge and executed their pre-match gameplan well. The Grecians pressed from a deeper position in comparison to recent weeks, which enabled them to be more compact and restricted Gills’ build-up play. In addition, City’s players drew the opposition out, which meant counter-attacking quickly proved to be a real option going forward, and Hanson and fellow forward, George Spencer, looked to take advantage of those opportunities.
Despite Exeter enjoying the best passages of play during the opening 45 minutes, the Kent club took the lead with the last kick of the half after they were able to turn on halfway and stride into the box before they drew a foul. The resulting penalty was slotted past Andrew Sowden, resulting in the hosts taking a lead into the break.
Despite the setback, the goal didn’t affect the mindset of the Devon team, and they soon regathered momentum in the early moments of the second half. With the wind behind them, they soon controlled the possession, and they dictated the tempo of the contest.
The away team created a number of decent chances throughout the half, with several coming through the avenue of the wider channels. Numerous threatening balls into the danger area saw instances of desperate defending from Gillingham’s backline through blocks and clearances, and, in truth, the Grecians were desperately unlucky not to equalise from any of them.
City’s replacements helped continue their forward momentum, and with the game approaching the full-time whistle, the Devonians were finally able to convert from one of their dangerous attacks to level the scores; Despite several efforts at goal repelled by a combination of the Gills goalkeeper and defence, Cunningham found himself in the right place at the right time to turn the ball in from five yards much to the delight of the visitors' travelling party.
The draw in the south east means Exeter are off the mark in Merit League One, and they will be hoping that they can carry that momentum through to this Saturday, when they face Devon rivals, Plymouth Argyle U18s, at the Cliff Hill Training Ground in their next game.
Exeter City’s Head of Coaching and Player Development, Kevin Nicholson: “It was a very good day. One of the real positives to come out of it was the fact we put in an all-round performance which included everyone involved. The spirit we showed and the freedom to play that we displayed was excellent. Harrison King captaining the team in the middle of the pitch showed real leadership, and Jack Cavendish, an Under-15 who made his Under-18s debut and came on and played 25-30 minutes at centre-back, did really well against a bigger and older opponent. Alfie Cunningham scored his first competitive Under-18s goal too. It was a good experience for the whole team.
“The players understand that the result isn’t the most important thing when it comes to their development. We outfought them, and gained the upper hand. And to see the way we played, and the way they conducted themselves, reaffirms to the boys that if they keep working, the results will come too.
“It was disappointing to concede the penalty so late in the first-half because we stood up to them so well. But we’ve allowed them to turn on the halfway line, and at that point, the boys needed to make a decision. It is probably a good learning opportunity for the players, knowing that we should be stopping that attack at the source, and much higher up the pitch.
“We play Plymouth Argyle Under-18s next, who gave us a bit of a lesson a few weeks ago. But Saturday gives us another chance to match up against them. They have a good side with pace and power in their team, but we’ll probably put out another young team, and we’ll look to have a good week in the build up to it. We will want to take belief from the game here, and try to outthink them, rather than go toe-to-toe, because it is a derby game.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Aamir Daniels, Scott Simmons, Sam Joce, Max, Edgecombe, Harrison King, Pedro Borges, Mitch Beardmore, Alfie Clark, Charlie Hanson, George Spencer
Subs: Jacca Cavendish, Tom Dean, Alfie Cunningham