Exeter City’s under-18s maintained their recent unbeaten run with a 1-1 home draw against Oxford United under-18s in the Youth Alliance South West division on Saturday.
Callum Cliff gave the U’s the lead after a quarter of an hour, before Grecians captain, Joe Wragg, levelled terms with a well-taken effort.
Despite both teams enjoying prominent spells in the second period, neither team were able to find a winner thanks to some brave defending at both ends of the pitch.
The draw keeps City fourth in the league standings, however, they have played more matches than any of the teams around them.
Both clubs lined up at the Cliff Hill Training Ground with fairly youthful starting XIs, with ECFC’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Tom Donati, opting for a back four in what was another change of system for the Devonians.
But the altered tactics failed to disrupt anything in the early periods, as the Exeter intent was clear from the outset, with Alfie Cunningham shooting wide inside the first 60 seconds.
With Cunningham in the prime playmaker role, he found himself at the heart of everything going forward for his team, and his through pass to Wragg created their side's second chance of the contest, however, the forward fired over.
The Yellows failed to get a foothold during the opening exchanges, but in the 15th minute, they made the breakthrough when they reacted quickest to a loose ball. Josh Iheanacho’s free-kick stung the palms of Dylan Shanahan, however, the goalkeeper couldn’t hold the powerful effort, and Cliff capitalised and diverted the ball over the goalline from close range to hand his team the early advantage.
The home side failed to let the conceded effort get to them, however, as they continued to create the better of the openings. Wragg shot one into the side netting, while Tom Dean’s long-range strike was comfortably saved as the game went beyond the midpoint of the half.
The best move of the match came on 26 minutes when Liam Oakes turned his marker on the left flank. The full-back slid in Pedro Borges, who in turn moved play onto Aaron Hale. The Grecian youngster took one touch to compose himself, before flashing a strike inches over the crossbar.
Wragg continued to terrorise the Oxford defence, and the City skipper brought his team back into the contest with a superb shot 12 minutes before half-time. Hale and Cunningham combined in midfield, before Wragg latched onto the resulting defence-splitting pass. The striker smashed an effort past Fraser Barnsley and inside the near post to deservedly make it 1-1.
In what became a dominant spell, Donati’s men kept coming forward. Wragg sent another whistling past the post, before another opportunity was well blocked a few moments afterwards.
But, despite all of the pressure, the two sets of players went in level at the break.
The 15-minute hiatus, however, didn’t halt the Devon club’s momentum. Wragg continued to be a livewire in the final third, and he fired wide moments after the restart, before Jake Richards tried his luck from the edge of the penalty box, but he could only shoot off-target.
A huge Exeter chance came just before the hour mark when a sloppy United backpass saw Wragg race onto the ball and bear down on the 'keeper. The attacker looked to round Barnsley, and although Wragg was forced away from goal, his effort on the turn beat the retreating defenders and clipped off of the post. Following up was Cunningham, whose shot appeared to be goalbound, but, a wonderful sliding challenge blocked the midfielder’s attempt and diverted the ball behind.
Later in the half, centre-back, Sam Joce, saw a glancing header kept out by Barnsley, while replacement, Alfie Clark, was also denied by the visiting goalie.
Several substitutions from the U’s helped even play up during the final quarter, while openings became far less frequent as the midfield battle became integral to the outcome of the game.
In the 79th minute, a solid block from Joce denied one Yellows forward, before the rebound was comfortably held on to by Shanahan.
Theo Cutler’s introduction brought renewed energy at the top end of the pitch for the hosts, however, the action in the Grecian half increased as time ticked down to the closing stages.
On 85 minutes, a deflected effort went just wide of Shanahan’s right post, and, with two minutes remaining, a heroic piece of defending from Scott Simmons repelled another Oxford attempt.
With Donati’s players unable to get themselves into any further promising positions up the other end of the pitch and create one last big chance during injury time, it meant that both teams had to settle for a point. The Devon outfit, therefore, stretched their unbeaten run to four league matches, with Forest Green Rovers U18s up next for them in their final fixture of the Youth Alliance South West division.
Exeter City’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Tom Donati: “I think every opportunity is a learning opportunity. We had a young team once again effectively, and I can definitely see some progression happening with them. With a change of manager, you can, of course, have some insecurities, and some difficulties, but this was a good performance overall, which included some good moments, and some not-so-good moments.
“I thought the first 10 minutes we were a bit shaky. We conceded early through another set piece. That is something we don’t focus on so much due to the players’ age and development process, but perhaps that is something we need to do because it becomes important when the lads progress and step up into the men’s environment.
“The squad reacted well to conceding, and it was really good for Joe Wragg to score again. To see him back on grass, playing regularly, and playing for Exeter City is important for me because he is an Exeter boy.
“When you look at the opportunities we created, and the amount of possession we had that was controlled, it was a shame we didn’t put the icing on the cake with another goal, but, that is all a part of the players’ development. Our ability collectively, from everyone, to control our emotions, and our momentum was a real positive, and it was good our players were not too disheartened by missing some of the chances we created.
“For me, I have been impressed with how flexible and adaptable the players are. We have deployed three different systems since I have been in charge, and it has been good to see how the players can adapt.
“Next week is a different test, a different team, with an early start going away from home. All the things that could differ for us does, so it will be a good learning opportunity for us, and how we prepare will be crucial. Things will be consistent from our point of view in terms of improving individuals and improving the team performance. I think we will have to not look at Forest Green Rovers as the team at the bottom, but as a real threat to us, and the boys will have to step on, progress, and have to be at their absolute best right from when the full-time whistle sounded here, up until the match on next Saturday.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Dylan Shanahan, Sam Joce, Scott Simmons, Kye Cooper, Tom Dean, Pedro Borges, Jake Richards, Alfie Cunningham, Aaron Hale, Malakai Miller, Joe Wragg
Subs: Liam Oakes, Jacca Cavendish, Alfie Clark, Theo Cutler
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