Exeter City’s Under-18s gained the bragging rights of the county following a 2-1 home victory over Plymouth Argyle U18s on Saturday in the inaugural fixture of the Under-18 Professional Development League Cup.
In a tight first half, Finley Wilkes gave the Pilgrims the lead on 18 minutes when his sliding effort diverted the ball into the bottom corner.
But a strong showing from City after half-time saw them get on the front foot, and they deservedly equalised courtesy of Alfie Cunningham’s precise finish.
With eight minutes remaining, Aamir Daniels won the tie for the Grecians when his low shot deceived Zak Baker and squirmed under the Plymouth shot-stopper, much to the delight of everyone in red and white.
ECFC’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Kevin Nicholson, was hoping his players could build on their many positives last week with another decent performance in what was the first fixture of a new cup competition.
The Professional Development League Cup will see Exeter’s youngsters take on two Category Two Academies, as well as Category Three club, Argyle, in what is regarded as a new competition to enhance the development of players in youth football.
The Green Army, brimming with confidence following their 7-0 victory over Swindon Town last time out, began as the team in the ascendency with lots of possession and tidy passes inside the opening 10 minutes; The hosts not helped by a disruption in their preparation as a late change saw Scott Simmons start due to Ed James’ injury in the build-up.
Will Jenkins-Davies spooned the away team’s first chance well over, before the referee stamped his authority on the game with an early booking for one of the Pilgrims defenders.
Following their cagey start, City’s players grew into the match, but they, alongside their opponents, put together some lovely patterns of play without really shooting a meaningful effort on goal.
Early on, it appeared to be a game decided on fine margins, and, thanks to a little bit of a scrappy build-up, Plymouth opened the scoring.
Grecians skipper, Harrison King, got himself in a good position to initially halt the Argyle attack, however, the rebound fell nicely for Wilkes, and he reacted ahead of Sam Joce to stretch and divert the ball beyond a flat-footed Andrew Sowden for 1-0.
Nicholson’s men gave a positive reaction, and they almost levelled 20 minutes in when King’s cross located Pedro Borges. The midfielder turned and looked to poke an effort beyond the ‘keeper, but the midfielder’s extension meant he couldn’t get any real purchase on the ball, and the danger was cleared by Jack Matthews from his own goalline.
Both Simmons and King saw marauding runs end with shots off-target as Exeter tried to crank up the pressure. On 26 minutes, some wonderful intricate play between Gabriel Billington, Joe O’Connor and Mitch Beardmore saw the latter played through, however, the wing-back was flagged offside as he saw his attempt smartly stopped by Baker.
Back came Darren Way’s players, and they might’ve doubled their advantage just after the half-hour when, at first, Kieran Edworthy saw a high strike expertly tipped over by Sowden, before Jenkins-Davies also found the home shot-stopper in top form moments later.
Sowden denied Edworthy once more six minutes before half-time as their duel recommenced, but it was City who enjoyed the brighter end to the opening 45, as Theo Cutler, twice, could have converted if he was afforded any more time by the retreating defence.
After the break, the Grecians continued their forward momentum, however, they came up against a stern and robust Green Army backline, and creating openings proved to be difficult.
Up the other end, bright play from Freddie Issaka had the visiting coaches up on their feet, but that proved to be the only thing to shout about from the Pilgrims' point of view, as they became increasingly disturbed the contest was being controlled by their opponents, as signalled by the two yellow cards for Way’s men at the midpoint of the second period.
Nicholson on the other hand looked confident with his team, and after introducing Daniels, Cunningham and Tom Dean from his bench, the extra life his new players brought resulted in an upshift in quality and energy across the whole side.
The Exeter right flank was becoming more and more of a threat, and it was from that avenue Cunningham brought his side back into the game in the 73rd minute. King, out wide, snatched back possession before he fizzed a path into the feet of the replacement. Cunningham’s swift footwork saw him shift the ball away from the defender on the edge of the box, before he arrowed an effort into the bottom corner to level the scores.
A break in play, moments after the equaliser, courtesy of the assistant referee picking up an injury gave the Plymouth players the chance to regroup and stop the momentum that was completely against them. As a result, Oscar Halls saw a header comfortably saved.
But, despite that Halls chance, the majority of the possession and territory still belonged to the hosts, and therefore it was no surprise that the day’s third goal came via one of their players.
Another nice bit of possession saw the ball played out to the left to Daniels. The left-back had already made some encouraging runs since he entered the fray, and this time he drifted inside to within 25-yards away from goal. With a bit of space in front of him, Daniels let fly, which rather caught out Baker, and whether it was a small deflection, or a wicked bounce, that put off the goalie, Baker’s attempts at a save were in vain, as the ball trickled into the back of the net to spark wild celebrations by Nicholson and his players.
Whatever heart and hope the visitors possessed beforehand, had now completely gone because of the late sucker-punch. In desperation, the Green Army won themselves a free-kick in the dying moments, however, Jenkins-Davies skied it well over Sowden’s crossbar.
With Argyle unable to muster up any further chances in reply, it allowed the Exeter players to see out the game in a comfortable manner, meaning it is they who start this new competition in the best way, and maximum points, and they’ll be looking to take that cup form into their upcoming fixtures with the Academies from Bristol City and Swansea City soon.
Exeter City’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Kevin Nicholson: “This week the lads have had a really good learning week, and for the first time, we’ve had a real competition for places this time. We haven’t been capable of naming four substitutes like that before, so it was the first time the players were fighting for spots, and naturally, some were left disappointed when we told the squad the team on Friday. But the lads need to know what it is like to be disappointed, and to be ready when called upon. With this group of players, against a decent Plymouth side, the lads really did themselves proud.
“I’m disappointed with the goal we have conceded. The first half was fairly even, but they probably started better. We didn’t get any real control but we gained confidence when we put together some nice passing moves. We were disappointed to be behind at the break, but it wasn’t because Plymouth didn’t deserve that. But what was really pleasing was our reaction.
“We always want the players to have an opinion towards the game plan, and we agreed with what gave us the best chance of winning. We started to put into practice what we were after in the first half, and we said to the guys, that if they really wanted it, they could turn it around. A couple of chances in the first half, we were a bit hesitant, but Alfie Cunningham’s first touch for his goal was brilliant. We put ourselves in lots of good positions and established control.
“Our message to the team was that they weren’t going to win this game with just the 11 players. The only chance was if everyone played their part. It was brilliant that Alfie Cunningham and Aamir Daniels came on and scored, but we put ourselves in the position to continue attacking due to the work we did earlier in the game.
“We play Newport County U18s in the league next, and they’ve had a couple of good results recently. Every season new players can come in and change the dynamics of a side, and they have just beaten Oxford which doesn’t happen often. Now we switch our focus to Newport, where we have got to put the work in this week. We have got to look at continuing to develop as individuals because the end goal is to get the players a professional contract, and we know we are going to need one another to do that.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Sam Joce, Scott Simmons, Jacca Cavendish, Harrison King, Mitch Beardmore, Gabriel Billington, Joe O’Connor, Pedro Borges, George Spencer, Theo Cutler
Subs: Aamir Daniels, Alfie Cunningham, Tom Dean