A dominant second-half performance saw Exeter City’s Under-18s go one better than the draw they mustered against Newport County U18s last week, as the Grecians ran out worth 4-1 victors over their Welsh counterparts in the reverse fixture on Saturday.
Tom Dean’s excellent finish handed City the advantage, but they were pegged back just before the interval when the Exiles capitalised on their opponents trying to play their way out of defence.
But a commanding performance after half-time saw the Devonians retake the lead when Mitch Beardmore’s free-kick ricocheted into the County net on 61 minutes.
Late goals from George Spencer and Pedro Borges wrapped up the points for the home side, who have moved up to fourth in the Youth Alliance South West division.
Brad Miller’s men welcomed Newport to the Cliff Hill Training Ground at the weekend just seven days after the two teams shared a dramatic 3-3 draw in South Wales.
The ECFC coach welcomed back several members of the usual youth team squad back into his starting XI, while scholars, Ed James, Gabriel Billington, Joe O’Connor and Spencer were all named on the bench after their weekend matches with their respective loan clubs were called off.
But those in red and white who started on the pitch began the game in a lively manner, and just a few minutes in, they tested the away goalkeeper after Dean and Alfie Clark combined effectively in midfield.
The Welshmen matched their opponents however in the opening stages, and they almost capitalised on some sloppy play a few minutes later, but Scott Simmons applied enough pressure on the Exiles striker for him to waste the chance.
In the 14th minute, a wonderful piece of ingenuity from Beardmore saw the playmaker tee up Alfie Cunningham with a scooped pass, which was eventually halted by an offside flag, while up the other end, Andrew Sowden kept matters goalless when he tipped an effort from the edge of the area around the post.
Beardmore, sporting the captain’s armband this week, was becoming more and more influential for his side, and he almost broke the deadlock with another piece of magic as he raced onto a pass down the side of the 18-yard box; The midfielder’s rabona shot, however, was parried away.
Sowden continued to be just as important for Exeter though, and after 32 minutes, he came to his side’s rescue as County floated a cross to the far stick. Rushing in came the unmarked full-back, but his attempt was wonderfully stopped by the City goalie.
The Devon outfit ended the opening 45 minutes strongly, as Cunningham and Borges both saw strikes kept out by the opponent's ‘keeper.
But some quick thinking by the hosts five minutes before the break saw them get into an advanced position on the left flank through Clark. The forward crossed the ball towards the back post where there was plenty of room, and, on the run, Dean half-volleyed the ball into the back of the net to open the scoring.
Newport tried to respond in first-half injury time, and, after stealing possession in the middle third, they sent one drive over the crossbar.
Moments later though, the visitors grabbed a leveller just when Miller’s men were looking to begin building an attack once more. Robbing the ball in the centre of the pitch, the Welsh club moved play on quickly, before sending their attacker in on goal with a direct pass. His dinked effort was too good for Sowden, as he handed his team the goal that brought the two sides level when the referee whistled for the interval seconds later.
Conditions worsened as both sets of players came out for the restart, which saw the early stages produce little highlights.
Jake Richards headed a corner off-target, but the first real talking point after half-time came when Exeter introduced Kye Cooper and James into the fray.
The substitutions had the desired effect, as the Grecians made it 2-1 through a set piece on the hour mark. Beardmore whipped in a devilish delivery, and with centre-half James being a nuisance in the danger area, one Exiles player diverted the ball past his own goalkeeper, much to the delight of those from the Westcountry.
In reply, County switched things up with two substitutions. The home team also brought on some fresh legs, with experienced trio, Spencer, Billington and O’Connor all given the opportunity to make their mark on the pitch.
With the addition of their more senior players, Miller’s men began to dictate play, playing the wind and rain superbly well enough to not allow the opposition out of their own half for the remaining 25 minutes.
Twice in quick succession, Exeter almost added a third when Borges saw one chance deflect just past the post, before Spencer smashed home a Beardmore cross, but his celebrations were cut short by the linesman’s flag.
Last week, Miller spoke about his players being unable to take their chances to secure the victory, and after Dean and Borges squandered further good opportunities for City, there was a hope that they weren’t going to pay for their misses once again.
But in the closing stages, the Grecians always looked in control of this contest, and they almost doubled their advantage when they broke forward following a corner for the away side. Spencer raced onto a loose ball, and dribbled his way to within 30 yards of the Exiles' goal. The replacement’s ambitious strike whistled over the County 'keeper, but the shot had too much on it as the ball went a couple of inches over the top.
As the clock ticked into the red, more chances fell the Devonians' way. Billington linked up with Clark, and his teasing cross located Borges, but the midfielder's volley was prevented by a point-blank save by the Newport shot-stopper.
Moments later though, the custodian was picking the ball out of the back of his net for a third time as two of the substitutes unlocked the defence once more. Billington played in Spencer, who poked a shot into the bottom corner to make it 3-1.
In the fourth minute of added time, while the result looked done, the scoring had not. With their opponents appearing deflated after conceding a third, the hosts advanced forward once again. Billington got hold of the ball in another promising position, before teeing up Borges 15-yards out. The Exeter number eight curled a shot beyond the reach of the goalie to wrap up a solid day’s work by him and his teammates, which meant the Grecians secured their first league win since the middle of November.
Exeter City's Head of Coaching, Brad-Lee Miller: “I’m pleased with the result and performance in the end. Obviously, there were moments which could have been cleaner, particularly with some of the players coming back. In the final third, we missed chances and it was a bit chaotic, particularly in the first half, but we showed a bit of quality in the end. Overall I am pleased with the group, and some of the individual performances.
“They were tough conditions at times. It was windy and wet, and then the sun came out, and then it became wet again. It was really difficult, but we adapted extremely well, and how we dealt with it all was a real positive.
“It was a pretty even first half. Newport provided their usual challenge. They worked hard, and we found it hard to break through them. In a way, we were taking each others’ spaces and rather cancelled each other out, but we scored a lovely goal through Tom Dean.
“We spoke to the group about recognising the spaces at half-time, and I was really pleased with the response. Mitch Beardmore has been working hard on getting in between the lines and helping us score and create opportunities and he did that, and we asked for more numbers in attack, and I am pleased we showed that late on.
“When the older players came on we showed that step up in composure and quality, and they rather demonstrated to the younger players what was required. With their matches off at the weekend, their development at this part of the season has been stop-start, and we thought it would be good to get them involved and give them some minutes.
“As always, there are things you can always improve on. But overall I am pleased with our intent and endeavour. It was a good performance and we will look to build on that. In the second half of the season, you are never quite sure what you will get, but, whichever individuals are involved, we will make sure we show our core values.
“We play Bristol Rovers at home next, who we have played a couple of times already this season. I enjoy playing them, and I know their manager well so I know they are coached well. The boys will have to be ready, but we will work on ourselves, as a team, and as individuals.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Max Edgecombe, Scott Simmons, Jacca Cavendish, Liam Oakes, Tom Dean, Pedro Borges, Jake Richards, Alfie Cunningham, Mitch Beardmore, Alfie Clark
Subs: Dan Layer, Kye Cooper, Ed James, Joe O’Connor, Gabriel Billington, George Spencer