A strong second-half showing wasn’t enough for Exeter City’s Under-18s to get anything from Saturday’s clash with table-toppers, AFC Bournemouth U18s, in the latest fixture of the Youth Alliance South West division.
Jonny Stuttle gave the Cherries the lead inside 30 seconds, before Michael Dacosta Gonzalez doubled his side’s advantage in first-half injury time.
However, the Grecians deservedly pulled a goal back on the hour mark through Gabriel Billington, but, despite the hosts controlling most of the play, Lewis Brown restored the two-goal cushion with six minutes remaining.
Theo Cutler’s late goal set up a thrilling finish, but ultimately City ran out of time to find another, meaning the Dorset club returned home with the all-important three points, which has seen Exeter drop to seventh in the league standings.
Exeter City's Head of Coaching, Brad-Lee Miller, made five changes to the team that played in the midweek FA Youth Cup tie, as he hoped his players would build on last Wednesday’s positive performance.
However, what hope and optimism might have been apparent in the players early on was quickly wiped out as, from the opening whistle, the visitors showed real intent, which saw them score with their first surge forward.
Bournemouth captain, Brown, helped move the ball into the penalty area from an attack down the right. The initial effort at goal was saved by Andrew Sowden’s feet, but on hand, Stuttle reacted quickest to tap in the rebound to hand the Cherries the dream start.
In truth though, despite the early breakthrough, both teams settled into a rhythm quickly without either goalkeeper being called into action. Then, in the 13th minute, a long ball located Dacosta Gonzalez, but the winger’s run and shot was denied by a secure Sowden.
In response, the Devon outfit mustered up their first real effort through skipper George Spencer, however, his low effort was routinely saved by Ollie Camis.
At the end of the opening quarter, both sides traded half-chances, but on the half-hour mark, Stuttle and Baylin Johnson looked to take advantage when they stole possession in the final third. The latter let fly from 20 yards, but that strike didn’t trouble Sowden. However, moments later, the ‘keeper produced a magnificent double save to deny Dacosta Gonzalez.
A Sam Joce effort from distance put an end to the Dorset side’s onslaught, but the momentum was snatched back quickly, and shots from Brown and Johnson piled the pressure on the Grecians.
The away side’s efforts were rewarded when the clock entered the red at the end of the first 45. Ollie Morgan found Johnson on the left, before the wide-man dribbled around Joce. A precise ball into the middle found Dacosta Gonzalez at the back post, who slotted home to make Alan Connell’s half-time team talk that much sweeter.
After the break, renewed belief ran through the home side. City created the opening second-half chance when Aamir Daniels’ cross-shot hit Spencer before the ball trickled just wide, although the linesman flagged the latter offside.
But, despite the resurgence, the away side still enjoyed a bright period, and Stuttle saw a half-volley narrowly miss in the 50th minute. As we neared the hour mark, both Johnson and Finn Tonks also went close.
Up the other end, a nice move on the left-hand side between Billington and Alfie Cunningham saw play move into the final third through Alfie Clark. The wing-back fired in a low cross, however, Spencer was unable to make any substantial contact to divert the ball goalwards.
Bournemouth wasted a golden opportunity to put the game to bed when a move down the left saw Johnson race free. With an easy square ball on, the winger chose to go himself, which saw Sowden save quite comfortably, leaving Johnson's coaching staff and supporters watching on a frustrated bunch.
And his team were made to pay for that miss just moments after when Miller’s men surged down the wing once again. The pull-back from the left came to Billington, and he curled a delightful effort beyond Camis and into the top corner to half the deficit and restore hope to the Exeter ranks with 30 minutes still left to play.
The life that goal brought to the side was evident in their next attack, as a leveller almost arrived. Tom Dean combined with Spencer, which saw the captain advance into the 18-yard box and make room for a powerful effort, but the attempt was beaten away.
Just before the midpoint of the second period, Mitch Beardmore was a little unlucky not to win the Devonians a penalty, while in the aftermath, Dean saw a whipped strike well stopped by Camis.
Despite turning to the bench and introducing Jake Richards to the fray, the Grecians still held the impetus, and both Simmons and Cunningham both worked the opponent’s goalie as they continued to look for that all-important leveller.
But the Cherries rode that storm, and began to enjoy another positive period with 15 minutes remaining. The ever-lively Johnson saw a low shot well saved, while the Dorset club again came close when Johnson cut in from the left and looked to bend an effort inside the far post, but the smart reactions of Sowden saw the goalkeeper push the ball away.
However, in the 84th minute, Bournemouth's spell of pressure eventually led to 3-1, albeit in fortunate circumstances. Following a cross from wide, Simmons cleared the initial attack, but the visitors kept the attack alive as they won the second phase. The ball broke for Brown 10-yards out, and his goalbound shot took a huge deflection to divert the ball into the bottom corner, much to the dismay of everyone in red and white.
However, that conceded effort prompted a strong response from City, and just four minutes later, Cunningham’s cross was glanced wide by danger-man Spencer.
That proved to just be a warning shot, as Exeter’s youngsters put together a lovely move to set up a grandstand finish as the clock entered added time. As the ball switched to the left side, Clark moved forward to send in a low cross towards substitute Theo Cutler. The forward managed to get the slightest nick on the ball to send the ball into the back of the net giving Camis no chance to make it 3-2.
With Miller’s men almost in control of their own destiny, they piled forward one last time deep into injury time. Clark danced his way infield to within shooting distance, and while he looked to curl a shot inside the far post, his attempt was held by the goalie to keep it at a five-goal game.
The referee blew for full-time moments later, meaning that, despite the hosts looking likely to get something, particularly from their second-half showing, the Dorset club held on for the three points, which has kept them top of the league standings, while the Grecians are without a league win since the middle of September.
Exeter City's Head of Coaching, Brad-Lee Miller: “We stuck to a good process, and when we did that, you certainly saw the good returns of that during the game. We went back to a younger squad that included more Under-16s, while others went back to their loan clubs which is fantastic for them, but with the group we had, we felt we were good enough to get something, and I think that showed. I feel we were a bit leggy from the FA Youth Cup game, and had a bit of a hangover from it, which led to a poor start, but the players are aware of that. It meant at half-time we questioned the team’s endeavour and approach, but that improved massively afterwards, and I am pleased with the development they showed in that second period.
“[Despite changing the squad from the FA Youth Cup game] I think it speaks volumes about the players at the Academy, and the younger players have shown they are ready when they are needed, and I think it speaks volumes about what we are trying to do - challenging every member of the squad individually. The young lads did well, and to hear the other players do well for their loan clubs as well was nice to hear too.
“I think the boys are concerned about the results more than myself. I’ve come from a development background, but I think the squad have started to buy into that. Regardless of the score and result, they will keep going, and we’ll stick to the progress because we want to try and get them that professional contract. Of course, it would be great to win, and the boys always want to do that, but ultimately, everything we do is about them.
“Next up we play Bristol City in our third match of the Under-18 Professional Development League Cup. I’m expecting a competitive game. I’m really looking forward to it, and it is a really good opportunity for the boys to express themselves. It is a different kind of test, and the boys are fully aware they need to win to give themselves a chance of qualification into the next round, so they are under no illusions. Like the FA Youth Cup, the group was to progress in this competition, so they’ll go into it with a clear mind. Bristol City are a good side. We played them in pre-season and that ended 5-5. It probably won’t end up like that, but in youth football, you just never know.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Sam Joce, Scott Simmons, Jacca Cavendish, Aamir Daniels, Alfie Clark, Gabriel Billington, Tom Dean, Alfie Cunningham, Mitch Beardmore, George Spencer
Subs: Jake Richards, Theo Cutler
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