Exeter City’s Under-18s hit their opponents for six as the Grecian youngsters secured an emphatic victory over Leyton Orient U18s on Saturday in their penultimate game of Merit League Two.
Joe Wragg broke the deadlock when he punished a mistake from the away goalkeeper, before the forward netted another in the early stages of the second half.
Alfie Clark’s long-range stunner increased the advantage, before Wragg completed his hattrick when he added the finishing touch to a wonderful team move in the 67th minute.
Late strikes from Theo Cutler and Aamir Daniels put the proverbial icing on the cake, to round off what became a good day at the office in City’s final home match of the season.
With four centre-backs missing from the match day squad, ECFC U18s Lead Coach, Tom Donati, opted for a back three, with Under-15, Harry Crees, flanked by Tom Dean and captain Max Edgecombe.
And that defence was put under copious amounts of pressure in the opening exchanges as Orient settled quickly, and their two powerful strikers certainly making their presence felt.
The contest was only two minutes old when the ball found the back of the Grecians’ goal, when a short corner routine led to a low shot begin parried away by Andrew Sowden. The London club tucked home the rebound, however, the officials deemed the player offside.
A quick throw a few moments later again opened up the Exeter backline. A pullback into a dangerous area saw the O’s fire another effort at goal, but the feet of Sowden came to the home team’s rescue.
That wake-up call startled the Devonians into life, and after getting on the ball for some spells of attacking pressure, a number of threatening crosses did come across the visitors’ goalmouth, however, nothing came from them.
On 12 minutes, the breakthrough came courtesy of a slice of luck in City’s favour. Orient’s goalkeeper tried to play his way out of defence, but the high press from Clark put him in trouble. The forward managed to steal possession from the custodian, before he squared the ball to Wragg, who simply tapped the ball into an unguarded net to make it 1-0.
The Londoners replied with a chance of their own, but again Sowden denied them, before the follow-up flew off-target.
Donati’s men then began to find their groove, and in the 19th minute, they were unfortunate not to double their advantage. Jake Richards tidied up play before he passed the ball to Clark. Clark backheeled the ball into Richards once again, who burst into the penalty box, before the midfielder was denied by a very good one-on-one save.
The Grecians were forced into an early substitution when Santino Ohanaka had to be replaced by Daniels because of injury, but that didn’t halt the Exeter momentum, and their surges forward became more prominent as the half went on.
Both clubs traded chances near the midpoint of the first period, before another throw-in had the Devon outfit in trouble once again. From there, one away forward ran through on goal, however, he struck the post as Sowden came to meet him. In the second phase of play, the goalkeeper pushed the shot from the rebound around the post to keep his side in the lead.
Mitch Beardmore was becoming more influential for City as half-time approached, and the midfielder was inches away from scoring when Wragg’s free-kick almost found located him at the back post. Six minutes later, Beardmore saw one effort charged down by some desperate defending.
The O’s pushed for a leveller in first half stoppage time, but Sowden again proved his worth as a crucial double save meant his team went into the interval still ahead.
Donati made it clear in his half-time message that his players needed to be focused at the restart as he knew an Orient response was coming.
But it was the Grecians who began the second half in the ascendancy. Just a few minutes into the half, Wragg climbed highest to head a chance over the crossbar.
But the attacker made no mistake with his next attempt soon after. Beardmore flicked the ball onto Wragg, who won his 50/50 duel, before creating half a yard to fire a shot at goal. His powerful drive flashed past the London goalie and into the back of the net for 2-0.
The visitors tried to muster something, and a low shot in the 54th minute might have provided the spark they needed, but Sowden stood up strong and denied the striker with another decent save.
Meanwhile, up the other end, Exeter demonstrated a swagger to their play and looked like they could score with almost every attack.
Just before the hour mark, they made it three. Richards again won back possession and linked up with Clark. The striker took aim from the corner of the 18-yard box, and curled the ball into the top corner with supreme skill, much to the delight of everyone watching.
The Devonians weren’t ready to settle for 3-0 however, and, after some lovely patient play in their own half, they ripped open the opposition defence as they exploited the open space they forced with their movement. Beardmore was released down the left, and his inside ball found Wragg, but he could only guide his shot against the post, before Alfie Cunningham squandered the rebound.
The O’s attempted to put some gloss on their day when they got forward on 65 minutes, but ultimately, Sowden’s exploits were too good for them, and the shot-stopper tipped the ball wide when their wide-man tried to whip the ball into the far corner.
Sowden in fact started the move for the day’s fourth goal of the day. Richards’ diagonal ball switched play over to the right, before Daniels got onto the ball in an advanced area. The replacement dashed away from his opposite man, before his low cross picked out Wragg, who completed his hattrick with consummate ease.
Donati introduced George Birch and Cutler from the bench, and they helped maintain the team’s energy and high standards.
Beardmore and Cutler combined nicely down the left before play moved onto Clark, however, the resulting strike was blocked and cleared away from danger.
Frustration crept into the mindset of the Orient players, and a break in play courtesy of melee between the two sets of players rather summed up their day.
The London club’s mood dampened shortly after when the home side netted again. Richards looked like he may have overrun the ball, but neat footwork and a strong run saw him move his team into the attacking third of the pitch. A nice through ball slipped in Cutler, and the substitute dispatched his attempt into the bottom corner with real assurance to make it 5-0 with four minutes remaining.
Cutler came close to his second as the clock ticked into the red, but City finished things off with perhaps the goal of the day in the 92nd minute.
Dean bought the ball out of defence before shifting the ball onto Daniels on the right flank. A change in pace saw Daniels sprint clear of several trailing defenders, before the wing-back smashed an effort from 25 yards past the reach of the goalkeeper and into the top corner, prompting massive celebrations from everyone in red and white.
Shortly after, the referee blew for full-time, meaning an ecstatic Donati, and his jubilant group of Exeter players, rightly celebrated their well-deserved three points, alongside the clean sheet and six goals. The Devonians have a Saturday off next weekend, but go again for one last dance in a fortnight’s time when they face Brentford’s Under-18s in their final game of the season.
Exeter City’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Tom Donati: “[It was] a real good win in terms of we rode out a storm early on in the game. Probably the first 10 minutes, [they] battered us to be honest. We couldn’t get to grips with the pressure or their direct play, and they caused us problems, but we came through that, and I think, getting the goal, nullified a little bit of what they were doing and allowed us to gain control.
“[Andrew] Sowden made two or three outstanding saves and really kept us in the game to be honest. He gave us the opportunity to keep a clean sheet which has been few and far between throughout the season so that was very impressive. Ironically, we’ve earned the clean sheet with four centre-backs missing, and with a makeshift back three, but it was a real solid defensive performance.
“Probably for me, I’m most pleased that the players learned to recognise and started to encourage one another, so it was really pleasing to see them gauging information in-game and being able to speak about that at half-time and put it into practice.
“My job, I believe, is to really squeeze out the most in everyone, staff and players included. I’ve said it since I walked through the door, there is ability here, but I don’t think they squeeze themselves and each other enough. We’ve still got more to go in my opinion, but it was pleasing to see us really stepping forward.
“Brentford will be aggressive, play on the front foot and in our faces, and we’ve got to rise again to the challenge of that. It will be a long trip away for us, and we’ll have some players back, but arguably you don’t want to change what’s been successful, but at the same time, it gives us more competition for places.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Santino Ohanaka, Max Edgecombe, Harry Crees, Tom Dean, Gabriel Billington, Jake Richards, Kye Cooper, Mitch Beardmore, Joe Wragg, Alfie Clark
Subs: Aamir Daniels, George Birch, Alfie Cunningham, Theo Cutler
Joe Wragg took home the match ball after his fantastic hat-trick!
Merit League Two
Here is how the table looks as of Tuesday, April 18.