Exeter City’s Under-18s kept up their recent good form thanks to a 3-1 home victory over Bristol Rovers under-18s in the Youth Alliance South West division on Saturday.
Joe Wragg’s first-half brace were the two stand-out moments from a largely even, yet scrappy, first period.
Despite the Grecians hitting the crossbar straight after half-time, the deficit was halved when one Gas forward scored from the penalty spot following a foul from City’s Pedro Borges.
But the win was sealed with 15 minutes remaining when Alfie Cunningham finished off a sweeping move for 3-1, meaning the Devon youngsters are now three league games unbeaten.
Following the postponement the previous week, the Pirates travelled down to the Cliff Hill Training Ground on Saturday to face an Exeter side that had seemingly turned a corner since the New Year.
While the hosts saw a number of their second-years return to their loan clubs, the younger members of the squad were tasked with the job of completing the league double over the Bristol outfit.
However, the first scare came courtesy of a Rovers attack when, inside the first few minutes, a cross-shot bounced off the top of Dylan Shanahan’s crossbar and away to safety.
Despite perhaps the visitors settling quicker, Brad Miller’s men soon got into a rhythm, and, on 13 minutes, Cunningham’s snapshot was repelled by the feet of the opponent’s goalkeeper.
However, not long after, the breakthrough came courtesy of the match’s first moment of real quality. After recycling a corner, Jake Richards curled a delicious ball back into the danger area. Joe Wragg beat the offside trap, and glanced an accurate header just inside the far post to break the deadlock and hand the Grecians the early lead.
In the Devonians’ next attack, Cunningham came close to extending the advantage when he almost got on the end of Wragg’s low centre, while up the other end, Gas were unlucky when they fired a volley goalwards, but that was superbly kept out by Shanahan's athletic stop.
Shanahan denied the same player a further two times during the Bristol club’s fruitful spell, before a Pirates shot trickled inches wide on 38 minutes.
But, despite the amount of action in the Exeter half, the home team doubled their lead just before the break. A long clearance was directed towards Alfie Clark, however he, and his marker, both missed the ball on the halfway line. That allowed Wragg to race onto it, and the wideman dribbled to around 35 yards out, before he sent a delicate lob over the Rovers goalie for 2-0.
Miller rang the changes at the start of the second half, before the hosts almost scored again nine minutes after the restart.
Richards bent another threatening cross into the middle, which the opposition's keeper could only flap at. Both Clark and a defender challenged for the loose ball, and from on the goal line, the ball flew up onto the bottom of the bar before it was cleared.
Further substitutions followed from both clubs, which brought a reaction from the Rovers players. On the hour mark, the away side came close with another volley.
But four minutes later they did get on the scoresheet, albeit in contentious fashion. After the Gas worked their way up the pitch down the left flank, they got into a dangerous position through their target man when he ran with the ball alongside the edge of the box. Borges tripped up the attacker, and while many thought the foul was outside the area, the referee pointed to the spot to award the penalty. The 12-yard attempt was cooly despatched, and the lead was halved sparking a huge cheer from the Pirates supporters.
But the Grecians responded to the setback well, and with a quarter of an hour remaining, they re-established their two-goal lead. Courtesy of a sweeping move from one flank to the other, play came via Tom Dean and Borges, before Kye Cooper received the ball out wide. The wing-back’s pass inside located Cunningham, and after failing with his first attempt, the midfielder converted the rebound from close range to make it 3-1.
The Bristolians attempted a comeback, and despite some encouraging signs, the closest they could come was through a shot from distance, which went wide of Shanahan’s left upright.
Arguably though, the cushion should have been increased as the contest reached its’ closing moments. Firstly, Cunningham scuffed a Dean cross narrowly wide, before Clark’s bright reactions saw him steal the ball high up the pitch, but he could only whip an effort past the post.
Despite City going close through Dean’s late free-kick, they had to settle for just the three goals on the day, with the win here taking them up to fourth in the league standings with only two matches left to play.
Exeter City’s Head of Coaching & Player Development, Brad-Lee Miller: “The boys have been working hard throughout the season, but, particularly over the last few games in what is a key moment in where they are this season and in their development. Although winning isn’t at the forefront of our minds, we recognise it is still an important part of the players’ development, and it is really good to see them turn their good performances into victories now.
“The first half was not the finest half of football we’ve played this season, and it was other scrappy at times, but two excellent bits of quality came from it. The first being Jake Richards’ cross for Joe Wragg, who took his header quite nicely, and the second, which was an outstanding goal from Joe, with the way he took the ball on the move and finished from where he did.
“We defended ok at times, and the overall performance was ok in comparison to where our games have been recently. I was pleased with the resilience we showed, and how we defended our box. We asked the team to be ruthless, and to possess a mentality of not wanting to concede, and the boys responded to that task well as we only conceded through a penalty, which was also debatable. We know the Bristol Rovers coaches well, and they are well coached and always up for the fight, so in what became difficult conditions at times, and in what was a scrappy game, there were some real moments of quality from us at times.
“To channel your thoughts into a reaction, and dealing with emotions and negatives is a massive part of football and part and parcel of the game. We always want to see how the boys respond to setbacks, and here they were excellent, and capped it off with a superbly worked third goal.
“We have discussions about the players all the time, and we are certainly pleased with where the group are at. There is a clear alignment from our Under-16s football to our Under018s level, and a clear message that has helped with the players coming into the squad. We have a really exciting group of players coming through once again.
“We play Oxford United U18s next, and in terms of personnel, I think you may see two very different sides. As always, they have a good Academy, with players who work extremely hard and are always up for the contest. We will make sure our boys are really preparing themselves for it this week, with high levels of intent and purpose.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Dylan Shanahan, Sam Joce, Scott Simmons, Jacca Cavendish, Kye Cooper, Tom Dean, Pedro Borges, Jake Richards, Alfie Cunningham, Joe Wragg, Alfie Clark
Subs: Liam Oakes, Harry Crees, Aaron Hale
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