Exeter City’s Under-18s recorded their first league win since mid-September courtesy of an eventful 3-2 home victory over Cheltenham Town under-18s at the weekend.
George Spencer kept up his fine run of form with a powerful effort in the first half, however, despite the Grecians’ dominance, they were pegged back on 65 minutes thanks to a Robins goal on the counter.
However, Two City goals in four injury-time minutes from Alfie Cunningham and Spencer sealed the win for Devonians, despite Town pulling one back with the final play of the game.
That much-needed win lifts Exeter into a top-half position in the standings of the Youth Alliance South West division, as they continue looking to earn a spot in Merit League One for the second half of the season.
ECFC’s Head of Coaching, Brad-Lee Miller, was hoping his team would continue to make steps forward following the youth side’s midweek FA Youth Cup victory over Forest Green Rovers U18s.
However, Miller had to contend with a different squad selection on Saturday, with some senior players linking up with the first team, while others headed back out on loan to their respective men’s sides.
But despite a younger side on show, the momentum carried forward from Tuesday’s cup tie remained with the Grecians, and they were the first to carve open an opportunity thanks to a throw-in on the left flank after eight minutes. A deep cross followed, and Spencer rose highest, but he could only glance a header wide of the far post.
Cheltenham responded though, and they came close to an opener when they won a free-kick, but, Andrew Sowden produced a wonderful diving stop to keep matters goalless.
That save brought the hosts to life though, and they raised their intensity and energy levels as they began to enjoy more possession and territory. Pedro Borges snatched at a volley in the 18th minute, while moments after, Spencer should have done better when he was teed up by Max Edgecombe.
Spencer, captaining the team once again because of Harrison King’s absence, was the danger man throughout the first 45, and he might’ve scored with City’s next attack following good combination play from Borges and Liam Oakes, but the forward flashed his shot just off-target.
Clearly though, Spencer was just warming up, as, in the 31st minute, he broke the deadlock in decisive fashion. Borges moved the ball onto his skipper, before some neat footwork from Spencer opened up a yard of space 20 yards out. The attacker powered a drive with his right foot beyond the reach of the visiting ‘keeper and into the back of the net to deservedly make it 1-0.
The Devon club kept hold of the impetus after half-time, and they were unfortunate not to add to the scoreline in the early moments of the second period after Borges produced a strong run down the right. The midfielder fired at goal from a tight angle, but his shot clipped the outside of the post and went behind.
Both Joe O’Connor and Spencer also tried their luck quickly after restart, but their efforts never really troubled the Robins goalie.
Cunningham began to influence play more often, and he twice went close, while just before the hour mark, Miller turned to his bench and introduced Jake Richards in the hope he could help his team extend their advantage.
However that stoppage in play allowed their opponents to regroup, and, as a result, at the midpoint of the second half, Town were able to equalise against the run of play. Cheltenham started a swift break with their left-back, who was able to cover plenty of ground quickly due to a pacey dribble down the centre of the pitch. After play was moved right, the man who started the move latched onto the deep cross, and he was able to bundle the ball past a helpless Sowden, to delight the large travelling contingent that had driven down the M5.
Despite Borges smashing a ball into the side netting as Exeter tried to muster some sort of quick reaction, the momentum had truly swung in the away team’s favour. As the 75th minute approached, the counter-attack proved to be a real weapon in their arsenal, and from that, twice their centre-forward had attempts from inside the box, but they both went just wide.
Tom Dean’s free-kick whistled past the upright for Miller’s men, but that proved to be only a little respite as a combination of some routine goalkeeping and brave defending kept the Robins at bay as they sensed a chance to take the lead.
But up the other end, the home side clicked back into gear, and, following a surge down the left flank, Dean picked out Spencer, but the attacker guided his header agonisingly past the upright.
The Grecians turned to their bench for some inspiration up top, with Theo Cutler introduced into the fray. Just five minutes after his introduction, the substitute almost made an instant impact after Scott Simmons and Dean linked up. The ball in located Cutler, but his volley was well stopped.
Moments later, City came the closest to their second of the day with an attack started by Oakes down the right. Spencer reacted first to the resulting cross, but once again he was left a frustrated figure as his headed effort struck the post.
With the amount of pressure exerted onto the Town goal though, there did seem a sense of inevitability that the next score would come Exeter’s way. As the clock entered the red and ticked past the 90-minute mark, Cutler cut out a defensive pass on halfway before he dribbled uncontested towards the Cheltenham goalkeeper. The replacement steadied himself but ultimately saw his one-v-one opportunity repelled by a decent save, however, in the aftermath, Cunningham backed up the initial shot and hurled himself in front to the resulting clearance. The midfielder ended up diverting the ball into an empty net to hand his side the lead once again delighting everyone in red and white.
That goal, which came in fortuitous circumstances, seemed to take the stuffing out of the visitors, while Miller’s men possessed another spring in their step going forward.
In the third minute of injury time, a beautiful long ball sent Cutler through on goal once again, but the forward saw another effort turned away by the busy custodian. Quick on the scene though was his strike partner, and Spencer tucked home the rebound in nonchalant fashion to make it 3-1.
Cutler had made a real impact since his introduction, and despite his 15-minute cameo, he arguably deserved a goal for his efforts. In the hosts' next attack, the sub sprinted onto another through ball once again. With the angle against him, Cutler still went for goal, but his shot pinged off the outside of the post before going behind for a goal kick.
With six minutes in all added on at the end, the Robins were still able to put together one more attack before full-time. One Town midfielder marched his way through the defence before he found his teammate in some space in front of goal. The Cheltenham substitute steadied himself and struck the ball into the bottom corner to reduce the deficit to try and set up a grandstand finish with barely any time left.
However, that proved to be the last piece of action, and when the referee blew for full-time shortly after, it was the Devonians who came off the pitch celebrating, as they rounded off a fantastic week with another fine victory and performance.
Exeter City's Head of Coaching, Brad-Lee Miller: " I'm delighted with the manor of the performance from the group, we were able to dominate possession of the ball for large periods of the game, looking to attack with our ECFC principles, which was really pleasing to see.
"With the large amounts of possession there are moments of concentration with the ball that we struggled with, particularly on transition for the equaliser, again the boys showed a great resilience and character to ‘go again’ after a set back, which was excellent.
"The back 3 were excellent, particularly with Gabe in there he was able to control the game from the middle centre half space. It was also really pleasing for George to grab two more goals after his hard work in training on and off the pitch.
"Alfie Cunningham’s goal was a reminder of why you need to continue going after the habits until the very end, pressing with intent to force a mistake resulted in a fortuitus goal, however, the intent to go after the ball was excellent.
"All in all another good performance from a lot of individuals as we continue building the different aspects of their game into a team.’’
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Gabriel Billington, Scott Simmons, Jacca Cavendish, Max Edgecombe, Liam Oakes, Joe O’Connor, Tom Dean, Alfie Cunningham, Pedro Borges, George Spencer
Subs: Jake Richards, Theo Cutler