Exeter City’s under-18s were eliminated from the group stage of the under-18 Professional Development League Cup following an eventful 4-3 defeat to Bristol City’s under-18s on Saturday.
Despite George Spencer’s first-half strike, the Grecians went in 3-1 down at half-time courtesy of two devastating counter-attacks and a heavily deflected effort on Harry Lee’s goal.
But well-worked goals from Aamir Daniels and Tom Dean deservedly saw the Devonians level the contest, however, an instant reply from the Bristol club meant they retook the lead.
Smart game management saw the visitors come away with the points that saw them top the group, meaning Exeter’s youngsters bow out of the competition after the first stage.
ECFC’s Head of Coaching, Brad-Lee Miller, took his young squad up the M5 to Millfield school for a hotly anticipated contest against another talented Academy, knowing that a win would give his players a decent chance of progressing in this season’s newest tournament.
Playing as the home team, the Grecians started quite brightly, and ended up controlling most of the opening periods with some sharp and snappy passing.
However, despite the promising start, inside the opening 10 minutes, the Devon team conceded the opening goal against the run of play. After the Robins worked the ball into a shooting position, the resulting effort took a massive nick off an attempted block that looped the ball over Lee and into the back of the net, much to the dismay of the Exeter players.
While that setback dealt Miller’s men a real blow, their reaction to it was strong, and minutes later, they grabbed themselves an equaliser through a well-worked routine. The hosts decided to play it short from a set-piece, which ended up with captain Harrison King swinging in a cross into the danger area. Spencer reached the ball ahead of the defenders, and the striker converted his attempt with real assurance to restore parity.
The Grecians displayed some real quality in possession, and became rather dominant on the ball. Often the midfield trio of Gabriel Billington, Tom Dean and Alfie Cunningham were brave in their passing, which in turn saw the team advance up the pitch quickly and menacingly.
However, despite the bright moments in possession, up the other end of the pitch, the Bristol side always looked a threat, particularly in transition. As the half wore on, the away team began to show their Championship qualities, and with the Devonians unable to deal with those counter-attacks effectively, the score quickly became 3-1 courtesy of some destructive breaks and devastating finishing.
Despite facing the difficult task at half-time of clawing back a two-goal margin, the Exeter coaching staff delivered a passionate and encouraging team talk to inject something into their players, which incidentally saw them step up and give a positive response.
In the early stages of the second period, Miller’s team put together some lovely phases of play, and in the 52nd minute, they managed to pull a goal back to really haul themselves back into the contest. An excellent bit of play saw the home side move the ball from defence, through midfield, and into the attacking third. A lovely switch saw Daniels pick up possession in a dangerous position, and the wing-back produced a composed and neat finish past the goalkeeper to make it 3-2.
That momentum picked up after the goal, and shortly after, the game was tied thanks to Dean’s predatory instincts. A nice passage of play saw the ball moved wide, before fed in front of goal, piling the pressure onto the Robins' goalie. With him unable to gather the ball at his first attempt, the spillage fell to the Grecians’ midfielder, who displayed real composure to dance his way around the stricken shot-stopper before he knocked the ball in from close range to deservedly bring his team level.
With the Devon club well on top and in complete control, there looked to be only one winner. But, despite Exeter players finding pockets of space around the pitch, and looking threatening when they went forward, the seventh goal of the day came from their opponents.
The Bristolians moved the ball nicely and worked their way into a promising position before trying their luck at goal. Like their opener, the shot from the visitors took a huge ricochet on its way to goal, and the ball flew past an unfortunate Lee once again to hand the lead back to Robins against the run of play.
Miller tried to rejuvenate his men once again, and he turned to his bench for some sort of response, however, conceding so quickly after drawing level seemed to take a bit of life out of the squad.
Still, the Grecians continued to pile forward in their quest for a leveller, and they almost got it as the game reached its’ closing stages when Spencer struck the post with another fierce effort.
But ultimately, their opponents looked a little more assured with the lead this time around. Some defensive solidity and smart play helped them wind the clock down therefore securing their place in the knockout stages when the referee eventually blew for full-time. The Exeter players were left disappointed after coming so close to advancing in a competition they so richly wanted to continue to be a part of.
Exeter City's Head of Coaching, Brad-Lee Miller: “I’m gutted for the lads, and we have just ended up falling short in terms of the result once again. It is a real shame because the approach from the players was so good. We knew we had to win to have a chance of progressing, and we went after the game. We played some great stuff, but we just couldn’t get over the line. We spoke to the group after, and naturally, they were disappointed at first, but we explained that we were pleased with what they did. The game could’ve gone one of two ways for us at half-time, but we’ve come out and taken the game to them, but in truth, Bristol City have managed the game extremely well in the closing stages.
“Their goals came at key moments. When you’re on top in a game, but the opponent gets the goal, you’ve got to show some resilience. But what this provides is a great opportunity for the players’ learning. It was a game decided on fine margins, and that showed, and I think if we ended up winning it 4-3 there would have been very few complaints.
“We didn’t deal with their direct play very well. Those transitional moments will be an area to focus on in training. We perhaps got a bit naive, and we couldn’t deal with that style. They used that threat well, but we have got to be better defensively.
“We certainly gave it a good go, and we weren't fazed by the opponent. In these types of games, you have to show your personality and character, and I thought we did that. If you go back into your shell, you can end up just coasting through the game, but our players aren’t like that. They really want to do well which is pleasing to see.
“Next is an away game against Swindon Town U18s, and we’ll be ready to go again. We will have a couple of the lads going out on loan to clubs once again which is good, while some will be training with the first team this week, so it is a period for the players to learn. But whatever players we have available to us, we will go into Saturday with real bravery and we’ll be looking for a positive performance once again.
Exeter City Under-18s: Harry Lee, Sam Joce, Scott Simmons, Jacca Cavendish, Aamir Daniels, Harrison King, Gabriel Billington, Tom Dean, Alfie Cunningham, Alfie Clark, George Spencer
Subs: Andrew Sowden, Ed James, Max Edgecombe, Jake Richards, Theo Cutler