Exeter City’s Under-18s secured a 3-2 victory away at Oxford United U18s in their final competitive match of 2023.
Despite the U's striking the post in the early exchanges, the Devon outfit broke the deadlock through an own goal.
The Grecians doubled their lead courtesy of Tom Dean’s tidy finish, before the midfielder netted another just before the break to make it 3-0.
Second-half goals from United’s Freddie Milner and Jack Lee set up a thrilling finale, however, Exeter’s defence stayed solid, meaning they were able to celebrate bagging an important three points before the Christmas holidays.
City’s youth side travelled eastwards to Oxfordshire with the hope that they could record their first league victory since the beginning of November to give the academy a bit of optimism ahead of their two-week break over the festive period.
Kye Cooper came in at full-back for the visitors with Max Edgecombe pushed further forward, while Liam Cartwright started in the heart of the backline.
The opening exchanges demonstrated little quality due to the high number of turnovers, with neither side able to establish any real rhythm in their build-up play.
Despite no one really able to construct any passing sequences, the U’s won an early corner. With that optimism, that set-piece resulted in a shooting chance, but the ball bounced off Dylan Shanahan’s post and away from danger much to the relief of the Devonians.
That scare kickstarted the Grecians, and they enjoyed more possession as they looked to get on the front foot and take the game to their opponents.
City began winning several corners, and that attacking pressure led to the day’s opener; A cross into the danger area gave the defender little opportunity to react, and the ball deflected off of him and into the back of the net to break the deadlock just after the 10 minute mark.
Following on from that frantic start, the breakthrough rather settled the Exeter players as they became extremely competitive and aggressive off the ball, while implementing their passing game while in possession.
Dean and fellow midfielder, Alfie Cunningham, were becoming more and more influential, while Louie Cayless at right-back looked to provide the width in an attacking sense as his teammates played their way through the thirds.
After another flurry of dead-ball scenarios, Cartwright came close to scoring with a header, while Theo Cutler was just inches away from converting another one of Edgecombe’s dangerous centres.
But the away side did add to their lead just after the midpoint of the first half courtesy of a nice pass and finish. Dean latched onto a precise through ball, before he tucked his effort beyond the home goalkeeper to make it a two-goal game.
A little later, Dean bagged his second of the afternoon when his aggressive press forced the U's defence into an error. A stray backpass was anticipated well by the Grecians’ number eight, and he showed great pace to bear down on goal, and, although his initial attempt was stopped, Dean showed great composure to turn in the rebound to make it 3-0.
After half-time, things seemed to die down as not a lot of flashpoints came to the fore, with both sides knowing that the next goal might’ve been invaluable.
All five replacements were used by the Devon club’s coaches, with the hope they might have been able to provide the missing spark from the second period.
With Oxford also looking to change things up, the contest became rather disrupted, which in turn made something happen thanks to the alterations in shape, tactics and personnel.
City centre-back, Sam Joce, was forced off with an injury in the final quarter of an hour, meaning that further tweaks were required with Exeter reduced to 10-men for the latter stages.
And the U’s profited from that with two minutes of regular time remaining when they took advantage of the away side’s bravery on the ball. One United forward was able to steal the ball back, before Milner slotted a shot past Shanahan to reduce the deficit.
In the first minute of injury-time, the hosts flooded forward and won themselves a corner. The resulting cross saw Lee bundle the ball across the goal line to make it 3-2 with time still on the clock.
However, a combination of strong and sensible defending meant that despite the late fightback, the Grecians were able to hold on, securing the three points that took them above the U's in the Youth Alliance South West division.
Exeter City’s Head of Coaching & Player Development, Brad Miller: “The boys came away from the match rather pleased. At half-time, we talked about the value of the clean sheet, so the group came away slightly disappointed conceding twice late on, but they did well considering we were down a man. The lads need to learn how to adapt in that kind of situation, and it was good for them to go through that experience.
“Over the Christmas period, we have some of our second-year scholars going out on loan, with Theo Cutler heading to Tiverton, and Sam Joce, Tom Dean and Alfie Cunningham linking up with Tavistock. The rest of the group will have their own individual training programmes from the club, and while there will be optional sessions over the next few weeks, we want them to spend some time away so they can hit the ground running in the new year with the hectic schedule coming up. Officially the players will be back in on January 2nd.
“Going forward, I think the aim will be to continue developing personal performances, and getting the boys to understand what they need to do for their next steps, and establish their needs for their roles in the team. This result with provide confidence, but hopefully they can hit the new year running, and add some consistency. The squad want to get into the top half of the table to get into Merit League One, because they want to play against the best. They have got to work hard to earn that right, but everyone, the players and coaches, want the team to go through the best experience that is possible.
“Finally, I would like to thank the fans for the support they have given me, the club, and more importantly the Academy. They have trusted in what we do here, and I am grateful for their interest in the Academy, and their love for the Under-18s team and players. The Academy aims to get as many of our young players playing in front of them at SJP as possible, and the supporters’ patience is much appreciated as it can be a process getting to that stage.
“I have had 11 special years at the club, and I feel very privileged that I have been a part of a club that I have supported since I was a young boy. I hope I have managed to have a positive impact on so many people, as I have loved every minute of my time here. I wouldn’t change any of it, and moving on was definitely the hardest decision of my life, and I will continue to come down and support the lads as much as I can.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Dylan Shanahan, Louie Cayless, Sam Joce, Liam Cartwright, Kye Cooper, Harry Crees, Tom Dean, Alfie Cunningham, Callum Graham, Max Edgecombe, Theo Cutler
Subs: Tobias Alsop, Guilio Maroni, Aidan Bown, Santino Ohanaka, Kieron Wilson