Exeter City’s under-18s suffered a 2-1 defeat to the hands of Cambridge United U18s in their first match of this season’s Merit League last Saturday.
The Devonians found themselves up against it from the very start as an error in possession allowed U’s forward, Brandon Njoku, to steal in and force the ball in from close range.
City grew into the first period, and they levelled matters when a high press allowed Pedro Borges to intercept a pass out, before the midfielder curled a beautiful strike into the top corner.
The second half belonged to United, however, and just before the hour mark a loose backpass played in Njoku, and he cooly rounded Andrew Sowden to seal the win and make his side’s long trip back to Cambridge a little sweeter.
Following their thrashing of Swindon Town in the final Youth Alliance game the week before, a buoyant Grecians side took to the pitch at the Cliff Hill Training Ground looking to get their Merit League off to the best of starts.
However, it was the away team who began on the front foot and looked to unsettle their opponents with an early breakthrough.
In just the second minute, the U’s aggressive intent was underlined with the opening goal when they seized upon a mistake from the hosts’ backline.
Njoku robbed his Scott Simmons of possession, before he bore down on goal, one against one with Sowden. The ‘keeper saved the initial effort, but with the rebound coming straight back, the ball was diverted home via Njoku and the chasing defender to hand the Yellows the early advantage.
Chad Gribble’s men were undoubtedly under pressure during a difficult opening quarter of an hour, and they were a little fortunate not to concede again as United winger, Faruq Usman, squandered a couple of decent opportunities.
But in the 19th minute, City put together their brightest bit of play when they moved the ball left to right through Borges. Mitch Beardmore slipped in Aamir Stanford on the overlap, and his cross-shot clipped the crossbar.
That kickstarted the Grecians into gear, and five minutes later they were inches away from equalising courtesy of a quick counter-attack. A powerful run through Borges saw the midfielder link up with Eli Collins on the left flank. The captain cut inside and tried his luck from 15 yards, however, his effort whistled just past the upright.
That attack was a sign of things to come, as the home side restored parity on 34 minutes. The high defensive intensity of Gribble’s men caused real problems for the opposition, and another aggressive press saw Borges recover possession when Cambridge goalie, Tom Finch, looked to play out of from the back. Borges displayed neat footwork to dance away from several tackles, before the midfielder whipped an effort high past Finch and inside the far post to make it 1-1.
On the cusp of half-time, United upped the ante, and, following another instance of Exeter hesitation, they almost retook the lead, but Ronan Ismaili dithered on the ball, and his shot was blocked by some courageous defending.
In injury time, the visitors again created another opening through a free-kick, but in truth, when the referee blew for the break, a level game was probably fair.
The opening chance after the break came for City’s youngsters when they won a free-kick on the right-hand side. Collins delivered a wicked cross into the danger area, before Simmons' header on goal saw Finch punch the ball out of the 18-yard box.
Up the other end, Usman tested Sowden with another shot, before the U’s went ahead for the second time in the game in the 57th minute.
The Grecians looked to tidy up play and retain possession with a pass back to Sowden, however, the inaccuracy of the ball back fell nicely for Njoku. The attacker reacted quickest, before he dribbled his way around the stranded goalkeeper and finished into an empty net for 2-1.
In response, the hosts looked to conjure an opening for a leveller, and their best chance came midway through the second half when Beardmore’s corner was met by the head of Ed James, though Finch pulled off a wonderful diving stop to deny the defender.
While the United shot-stopper had arguably pulled off the save of the game, it was Sowden who was the busier 'keeper, and just a few minutes later he repelled a low cross-shot.
Despite the Devon club introducing the likes of Tom Dean and Sam Joce from the bench, the pressure continued to come onto the Exeter goal, and Sowden produced an excellent one v one save to deny Njoku from completing his hattrick.
Njoku's movement continued to terrorise the City backline, and he was able to capitalise on a poor touch to outpace the retreating defenders and try his luck again, but Sowden remained solid.
Frustration crept into the Grecian ranks and James’ booking with 11 minutes remaining rather summed up their desperation.
A fourth goal of the morning looked most likely to come Cambridge’s way. In the 89th minute, a direct ball found the intelligent run of Njoku, and he once again found Sowden in tremendous form as his shot was parried away.
The on-field battle of Njoku versus Sowden had one more chapter as the game ticked into injury time, with the goalie coming out on top once again to push away Njoku's effort away from the bottom corner.
But despite Sowden’s best efforts, his team succumbed to a defeat when the full-time whistle sounded, with Gribble and his players hoping they will be able to learn from this performance, and put things right in time for an away trip to Southend United this coming Saturday.
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Max Edgecombe, Aamir Stanford, Ed James, Scott Simmons, Harrison King, Eli Collins, Pedro Borges, Alfie Clark, Mitch Beardmore, George Spencer
Subs: Sam Joce, Dan Layer, Tom Dean, Alfie Cunningham