Exeter City’s Under-18s made it back-to-back wins in Merit League Two thanks to a comprehensive 5-1 victory over MK Dons U18s at the Cliff Hill Training Ground on Saturday.
A quickfire Theo Cutler brace put the Grecians in control early on, however, the visitors halved the deficit with a stunning long-range strike in the 25th minute.
Alfie Clark’s goal in the early stages of the second period restored the two-goal advantage, before late strikes from George Spencer and Pedro Borges emphasised City’s dominance.
Exeter’s youngsters have now jumped high into the mid-table places with just three Merit League matches left, and they’ll be looking for further improvement, and a climb further up the standings, in the final few rounds of competitive fixtures.
Following last weekend’s uplifting performance against Bristol Rovers U18s, Tom Donati and his young squad were hoping for more of the same as they welcomed the Buckinghamshire club to the Westcountry.
Following the postponement of games across the region, and therefore several second-year scholars available for the home team, Ed James was drafted into the heart of the defence, while Mitch Beardmore and Joe Wragg offered their experience from the wide channels.
The Grecians began proceedings brightly, and following nice link-up play between the front two of Cutler and Clark, Wragg drove a shot over in the fourth minute. In reply, MK conjured an attack of their own down the right flank, but goalkeeper Dylan Shanahan denied the Dons at the second attempt.
The contest was barely seven minutes old when the breakthrough came, and it arrived courtesy of some lovely City build-up play. Tom Dean slipped in Wragg down the right-hand side, before the winger dribbled his way into the penalty area. His centre located Cutler, whose initial shot was well saved, but the striker converted the rebound to hand his team the early initiative.
The Devonians continued to produce some lovely patterns as they worked their way through the thirds, and another instance came in the ninth minute, when they doubled their advantage. Captain Gabriel Billington brought Beardmore and Liam Oakes into play, before the ball was played down the line to Cutler. A strong run saw the forward storm into the box, before he was recklessly hacked down, leaving the referee no choice but to award the penalty. Cutler picked himself up and converted his 12-yard attempt coolly past the goalkeeper for 2-0.
But to their credit, the away side responded pretty well and grabbed a foothold in the game. After Shanahan denied one Milton Keynes attacker with a smart stop, the immediate follow-up chance was somehow headed wide. A few minutes later, MK squandered another header.
Wragg fizzed one Exeter effort inches past the post, but the better openings came the way of their opponents.
A vital clearance from Sam Joce stopped another Dons player from scoring a tap-in, but, in the 25th minute, Donati’s men were finally undone by a short corner routine. A few quick interchanges followed on the corner of the area, before a curling effort floated beautifully into the top corner giving Shanahan no chance.
That conceded goal kicked the Grecians back into life, and some lovely football on the half-hour mark almost brought back the two-goal cushion. Oakes and Beardmore combined once again, before Jake Richards received the inside ball. Clark then showed some nice touches into the danger area before Cutler saw his shot charged down.
In the closing stages of the first 45 minutes, the visitors had the chance to equalise when their first strike at goal ricocheted off a massive deflection. At the back post, one Milton Keynes forward ghosted in, but he failed to make any contact with the ball with the goal at his mercy.
But, the half-time whistle sounded with no change in the score, leaving Donati largely pleased with what he saw.
Confidence was clearly high, and a bright start to the second period backed that up. Inside the opening few minutes Wragg saw another attempt stopped by the opposition goalie.
At a crucial point in the contest, the next score came on 49 minutes, which came City's way thanks to another bit of intricate play. Billington showed tremendous anticipation in cutting out a pass on halfway, before moving the play onto Cutler. The Exeter number nine released his pass at precisely the right moment to Clark, and he produced a lovely finish into the back of the net to make it 3-1.
That goal really settled Donati’s men down, and they became to go through the gears to seize all of the momentum.
A few moments later they could’ve added another after Dean won back the ball. Cutler fed Wragg who powered a low ball across the face of goal. Clark reached it first, but he could only smash a shot against the crossbar much to the relief of the MK defence.
Into the final quarter, both teams turned to their benches to try and add some energy and impetus to the affair. And it was the hosts who carved open the next sight of goal through two of their replacements. Borges won possession and reached the byline, before his pullback found Spencer, however, he could only divert the ball wide.
Spencer was proving to be a real livewire following his introduction, and following nice build-up play involving Cutler and Kye Cooper, Spencer again got to the ball first following a cross into the middle, however, the Dons' substitute ‘keeper made a tremendous block with his feet to keep it at a four-goal game.
Both teams traded chances as the final stages approached, but on 78 minutes, the result was sealed. Beardmore stole back the ball and sent Cutler bearing down on goal once again. Cutler displayed good awareness by committing the goalkeeper, before he squared a pass to Spencer, who duly obliged and tucked the chance in from close range to extend the lead.
The Devon side weren’t done there though, as a relentless and ruthless streak entered their mindset in the hope of adding more goals. Spencer read a rather poor and sloppy Milton Keynes backpass which saw the forward streak clear. The replacement was brought down illegally by a desperate rescue attempt from the visitors’ backline, which ultimately handed Cutler the chance to complete his hattrick. The Grecians’ two-goal hero though was unable to add another to his tally as his second spot-kick was well stopped, and the score remained 4-1.
The new MK goalkeeper was performing well, and he made a decent one-on-one stop to keep out Cutler a little later after Borges countered from a corner. As City kept the attack alive, the ball was recycled through Aamir Daniels on the right wing. He shaped a lovely ball towards the six-yard box, before Spencer somehow guided his header past the far upright.
The Dons defence was once again unlocked two minutes from time courtesy of a long ball from Sam Joce, however, Exeter failed to add to their tally as Borges wasted the opportunity.
But finally, Donati’s men netted their fifth of the afternoon in injury time. Despite covering every blade of the artificial surface in the previous 94 minutes, Richards managed to burst away from the away midfield before he slid in Borges. The linesman kept his flag down, which allowed Borges all the time to pick his spot, and he calmly slotted the ball in for 5-1, to wrap up a good day’s work for those in red and white.
Exeter City’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Tom Donati: “It was a much better, and much-improved performance.
“I thought two of the Under-16s were outstanding. Liam Oakes and Theo Cutler were brilliant, and their work rate was very good. Liam was very good in defence and attack, and helped us play how we wanted to. Theo managed to score two goals, and although he missed a penalty, he grabbed an assist too, and really set the tone from the front which was pleasing to see.
“Mitch Beardmore worked very hard, and Gabriel Billington controlled the midfield area well and dictated the tempo, while I thought Jake Richards was also similar in that respect. I could go through the whole team and praise everyone, but really, I thought overall the team were just very good.
“We have had some indifferent starts to games in recent times, so a fast start was a part of the plan. We controlled the game for the most part, and were much more clear about how we wanted to play. I thought it was clear how we wanted to break them down, and because of that, we created numerous chances through crosses, we had the missed penalty, and George Spencer missed a header as well, so genuinely, it could have been eight or nine goals for us on the day.
“Winning is the best way to bring the group together, but the style of the victory and the way we played has really helped. We play again on Tuesday, and we will look to go at Forest Green Rovers U18s. We’ll work hard in training with our preparation, and do what we need to do. We will set up and play how we want to, while also limiting the opposition, but the key thing is to continue improving.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Dylan Shanahan, Ed James, Sam Joce, Liam Oakes, Tom Dean, Gabriel Billington, Jake Richards, Mitch Beardmore, Joe Wragg, Alfie Clark, Theo Cutler
Subs: Scott Simmons, Aamir Daniels, Kye Cooper, Pedro Borges, George Spencer
Here is how the table looks as of Tuesday, April 4.