Exeter City’s under-18s were held by Forest Green Rovers under-18s in a six-goal thriller at the Cliff Hill Training Ground on Saturday.
Despite the away side’s quick start, the Grecians grew into the game, and goals from George Spencer and Ed James deservedly gave them the initiative at half-time.
However a resurgent FGR team came out after the break with real intent, and two strikes before the midpoint of the second period restored parity.
Joe Wragg’s penalty made it 3-2 in the 74th minute, however, a quick counter-attack led to another Rovers equaliser, meaning the points were shared despite all of the drama.
City's under-18s Lead Coach, Kevin Nicholson, was looking for his players to build on last week’s comprehensive victory in Bristol.
Ed James and Aamir Daniels came into the starting XI, as Harrison King and Pedro Borges linked up with Matt Taylor and the first team for their lunchtime game at The New Lawn.
But while a confidence buzzed around the Exeter changing room, it was their opponents who came out of the traps quicker. Twice inside the opening few minutes, some precise passing allowed Rovers to work the ball out to their right winger, however, City’s Andrew Sowden stood up to both efforts.
Defender Scott Simmons repelled another Forest Green shot moments later, with the energetic and vibrant start from the visitors a real sign of intent.
While FGR found themselves in another threatening position on 14 minutes, eventually, the home side kicked into life, and with their first shot on goal, they were able to open the scoring.
Sam Joce sent a long and direct ball over the opposition defence, which ended in a footrace between the goalkeeper and stand-in skipper, Spencer. While the Rovers shot-stopper should have comfortably cleared his lines, his missed header meant Spencer became the favourite to reach the loose ball, and the attacker tapped home from just a couple of yards to hand his team the advantage in the 18th minute.
The goal settled the Devon club down, and they began to get the ball down and play some intricate stuff. A nice combination between James, Jake Richards, and Theo Cutler, saw a pass squared to Spencer inside the penalty area, however, an offside flag put an end to that attack.
But the Grecians continued to conjure up some nice phases, and some brilliant play in the build-up led to their second of the day. Gabriel Billington and Aamir Daniels helped win Nicholson’s men a corner after 23 minutes, which was worked short. Billington curled a cross into the danger zone, before Spencer kept the ball alive with a flick-on, and on hand, James looped a header over everyone which fell inside the far post to make it 2-0.
Back came their opponents though, and they were close to halving the deficit when they won a battle in the air in the middle third on 34 minutes. A nice ball out wide to their right winger once again led to another strike on goal, but Sowden dived to his left to tip the ball round.
In the lead up to half-time, the two sides traded chances. The away side headed one off target, while at the other end, Billington’s pass to Daniels saw the right-back clip the crossbar with a dangerous ball into the centre.
After the break though, the impetus belonged to the FGR, who came back onto the pitch just like they had started the day.
Just five minutes after the restart, Rovers won themselves a free-kick on the edge of the 18-yard box, well within shooting distance. The resulting effort gave Sowden little chance but smashed against the crossbar, before the rebound was deflected wide, to give Exeter time to draw breath.
However, their relief soon turned to despair as the resulting corner located one Forest Green player. He rose highest and moved play onto his teammate, who was barely a few yards out, before another header forced the ball over the goalline to halve the deficit.
Despite the goal, the pressure put onto City’s goal continued to come at a relentless rate. James was required to turn another dangerous cross behind, while Sowden made a routine save in the 52nd minute.
Spencer saw a half-volley comfortably stopped, but that became the Devonians only real bit of promise in what became a testing period.
A little later, the home 'keeper made another two saves in quick succession, while the visitors really should have done better when one player was in on goal following a ball over the Grecians’ defence.
On the hour mark, Sowden stole the limelight when, at first, he rescued his defence when he tipped round an arrowing effort past the post, before the goalie reacted quickest from the resulting corner to claw the ball away following a ricochet off James inside the six-yard box.
Not long after, both teams turned to their benches, with them each making a triple substitution to freshen things up.
It was the FGR who regrouped quickest following the break in play, as they were able to net an equaliser from another set-piece. A menacing corner saw one of the Forest Green centre-backs win his aerial duel, and the subsequent bullet header proved too good for Sowden and made it two goals apiece with a quarter of the game still remaining.
To their credit, Nicholson’s side fought back to get another foothold in the contest, and just seven minutes after throwing away their lead, they managed to score again, much to the delight of the Exeter faithful.
Simmons went direct and fired a long ball forward which once again caused confusion in the opposition defensive third. Despite Spencer missing the first contact, the away goalkeeper also failed to make a connection, which allowed Wragg to pounce onto the loose ball with the goal at his mercy. A loose touch meant the chance was almost gone, but then the replacement was felled inside the area before a penalty was awarded; Wragg made no mistake from 12-yards to set up a thrilling finale.
That conceded goal for Rovers, however, only made their players more determined, and following the introduction of more personnel from the bench, they were able to break Devonian hearts with just 10 minutes remaining.
The Grecians looked to build from the back, however, a high press from the front allowed FGR to cut out a pass, before moving the ball onto their new striker. He slipped in the right midfielder, who fired a devastating low drive into the bottom corner to make it a six-goal game and level the scores once again.
The final flurry of substitutions disrupted the closing stages of the game, and despite both teams trying to gather some energy for a push towards a winner, the two teams had to settle for the draw, which leaves City in third place in the South West standings, and four points behind leaders AFC Bournemouth U18s.
Exeter City’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Kevin Nicholson: “I’m not too bothered by the result. The build-up to this game was all about our performance, and what the players could do to influence it. Then the result would become a byproduct of that work. It was probably the worst we have played all season, and I am particularly disappointed with our application. It was like we didn’t take what we had worked on during the week into it. I have to make sure I coach it better, and get a clear message across to the players. We were fortunate to go ahead, but that was a bit of a false positive, and didn’t deserve to be winning. We showed character at 2-2, but sometimes you get what you don’t deserve.
“Sometimes these are the games, when you dissect it, that can help define your season. It is about what lessons we can take from it, and making sure our preparations don’t go to waste. We weren’t good enough at simple things like passing and receiving the ball. This is a brilliant opportunity to take a few steps back, and the lads need to understand it isn’t just about results at the end of the day, but it is about achieving that professional contract at the end of their scholarships.
“A big positive is the subs all tried to add energy. Joe Wragg and Alfie Cunningham looked to affect the game, but for Jacca Cavendish, coming on at the back, it ended up being a bit like a baptism of fire. But for Joe Wragg, it was great for him to score as he is on the up after his injury problems. We didn’t deserve that third goal, and I wasn’t surprised that Forest Green managed to come back and equalise.
“We need to do better as a group, as players and coaches. We play a midweek game against Hartpury University, which will provide us will a great challenge. Then we go into another good test with an away trip to Oxford United U18s. They are always up there in the league. They are very physical and direct, and have a lot of athletic and quick players. They know how to win, and you’re never surprised by what an Oxford team looks like. They are a different demographic and challenge to what we’ve faced, but it will be up to us to make sure we match them with our work rate and physicality, while also trying to keep the ball away from them.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Scott Simmons, Sam Joce, Ed James, Aamir Daniels, Alfie Clark, Gabriel Billington, Tom Dean, Jake Richards, Theo Cutler, George Spencer
Subs: Jacca Cavendish, Liam Oakes, Alfie Cunningham, Joe Wragg
Please click here to view the current standings.