An extremely young Exeter City Under-18s side put in an outstanding performance against Newport County U18s on Saturday and were cruelly denied the league victory thanks to a late equaliser in a six-goal thriller.
Despite some lively spells of early possession from City, the Exiles found themselves 2-0 up against the run of play inside the opening quarter of the game.
Alfie Cunningham halved the deficit just before half-time, before the Devonians drew level thanks to a lovely move finished off by Jake Richards.
Richards’ direct free-kick looked to have won it for the Grecians, however, County struck back in the 90th minute meaning the points were shared despite the big effort put in by everyone in red and white.
With eight members of the Under-18s squad out on loan to their men’s clubs around the region, as well as an in-house friendly match organised for the Exeter first-team, ECFC’s Head of Coaching, Brad Miller, took a rather young, and barely recognisable squad to South Wales for the youth side’s first competitive game back since their Christmas break.
With both teams locked in a mid-table scrap in the Youth Alliance league standings, there was a lot at stake going into the contest, but, despite some inexperienced personnel in the visitors’ starting XI, the age difference between the two sets of players wasn’t obvious.
City’s youngsters began quickly and showed a real confidence in possession, which helped the team propel themselves up the pitch during the opening exchanges.
But lessons were learnt quickly despite their favourable territory stats as Newport broke the deadlock despite their limited time on the ball.
As the contest approached the midpoint of the first period, the hosts managed to double their lead, much to the frustration of their opponents. But, despite the setback, a swagger still oozed through the Devon side’s play, who had continued to show decent ability going forward up to that point.
Their efforts were finally rewarded five minutes before the interval. Aaron Hale and Richards combined nicely, before the latter played a sublime defence-splitting pass into the path of Cunningham. The attacking midfielder ran through and dribbled his way around the Exiles goalkeeper, before slotting home, to pull a goal back and restore optimism back into the hearts of Grecian youngsters.
While Miller used half-time to make some tactical adjustments, the main focus of his team talk injected more belief into the mindset of his players, informing them to trust their own ability, particularly in the attacking third of the pitch.
With the momentum on their side, City took that positive message on board right from the restart and enjoyed some dominating periods with the ball.
Meanwhile, at the back, they still had to remain switched on, and despite the opposition not posing too much of a threat, Exeter shot-stopper, Dan Layer, produced a magnificent double save to keep it at a three-goal game.
Up the other end of the pitch though, a free-flowing move saw the Devon club deservedly equalise; A switch to the left flank saw Kye Cooper advance down the wing, before he crossed the ball into the danger area. Richards latched onto the centre and finished decisively past the goalie to make it 2-2 with plenty of time still left on the clock.
Thanks to their control and forward impetus, the Grecians turned the game on its head shortly after with a moment of real quality. Exeter won themselves a free-kick within shooting distance of the County goal, before Richards whipped a wonderful effort beyond the home ‘keeper and into the back of the net to hand his team the lead for the first time.
Miller’s men continued to play on the front foot despite taking the lead, and, courtesy of some lively cameos from the bench, on top of their forward line of Hale, Cunningham, and Richards, they continued to create the better of the chances during the closing stages.
Those opportunities went to waste however, and, as time ticked down, there was a hope that the away team would do enough to hold on to their one-goal advantage.
But as the clock approached the red, the Welshmen put together one final attack. Newport moved the ball into a dangerous position, and despite some desperate attempts to keep the ball out, the Exiles smuggled the ball past Layer one more time to restore parity once again, and snatch a share of the spoils.
Exeter City's Head of Coaching, Brad-Lee Miller: “I thought we put in a really good performance. Even though eight of the lads were out on loan, and others were involved with an in-house friendly, we were outstanding at times, and we are coming away from this game really pleased.
“We were a lot younger than them but we were extremely competitive. I really liked the personality that was shown by the group, particularly as they came back from a two-goal deficit, and then went on to take the lead, so I thought that spoke volumes about the squad. I was very pleased with the character that was on display, because they’re a good quality group where the quality is high. We played with real intent at times which was excellent, and I thought the four scholars that did play stood up and showed real leadership, and led by example.
“Sam Joce was commanding at the back, and with some Under-15s next to him in defence, communicated well. A special mention has to go to Jake Richards who had a fantastic game and showed a decent level of work rate, ethic, and real quality in possession. But as a whole, the group were excellent and gave it a good go.
“The early signs for this group going forward are there. Their games programme really helps leading up to moments like this, with their Floodlit Cup matches and other competitive fixtures, but this is just the first time they’ve played at this level, and now the challenge is to show that over a number of games.
“Next week we play Newport again, but at home, and I imagine it will be fairly similar. We might end up with a group not quite as young, and other scholars may come in, but those out on loan will play for their loan clubs unless their matches are called off.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Dan Layer, Sam Joce, Scott Simmons, Jacca Cavendish, Liam Oakes, Kye Cooper, Harry Crees, Tom Dean, Alfie Cunningham, Jake Richards, Aaron Hale
Subs: Rafa Beadman, Rohullah Mohammadi
Please click here to view the current standings.