Exeter City’s Under-18s secured their first Merit League Two victory with a 3-2 win away at Bristol Rovers U18s at the weekend.
Santino Ohanaka opened the scoring when he finished off a wonderful team move, before George Spencer’s header doubled the Grecian lead.
The Pirates came back in the second half and enjoyed a prominent 10-minute period when they scored two quick-fire goals to level the contest and set up a thrilling finale.
But any threat of a Rovers comeback win was quickly extinguished when Theo Cutler restored the Exeter lead almost straight from kick-off to bag his team their first three-point haul of this season’s competition.
Despite Saturday’s Westcountry derby taking place on an astroturf pitch, playing conditions were tough courtesy of the weather and swirling wind.
ECFC U18s Lead Coach, Tom Donati, was given the luxury of recalling second-year scholars Spencer and Gabriel Billington back into the starting XI, while Ohanaka came back into the match day squad after his absence last week.
With the tricky gales swirling against the City players in the first period, Donati and his coaching staff made a point to the players that it was important to play in the Exeter City fashion, with the ball on the floor, as they moved the opposition around.
The Devonians dominated long spells in the first half, with several passages of play rather easy on the eye as they swept forward at every possible opportunity.
The visitors made the breakthrough when they built an attack from goalkeeper Dylan Shanahan. With a combination of patience and precision, they moved through the thirds with a real swagger, before Ohanaka received possession on the edge of the box. The midfielder dropped his shoulder to create half a yard of space before arrowing a low shot inside the near post and into the bottom corner to break the deadlock.
With the Grecians well in control, they made it 2-0 later in the half after a switch of play from right to left. Exeter made use of the extra man on the flank, and a high cross was met by the forehead of Spencer, who guided the ball past the home ‘keeper to double the advantage.
Donati’s men continued to dominate proceedings in the lead-up to the break as they put together some exchanges in the middle third, however, they were unable to turn their possession stats into any more goals before the half-time whistle blew.
The City coaches asked for more of the same from their players in the second period, however, following the restart, the strong gusts they had in their favour actually made things harder for them to sustain the control they enjoyed before.
Around the 50-minute mark, the Devon club turned to their bench to introduce three fresh faces into the mix. But rather than have a positive influence, the switches seemed to unsettle the away side and allowed their opponents to get a foothold on matters.
The Gas sensed an opportunity, and they pulled themselves back into the contest during a prominent 10-minute period. The hosts took full advantage of the lack of authority in the Grecian line-up to score two quick-fire goals to level the scores, much to the frustration of those in red and white.
But any threat of a Bristolian comeback win was quickly extinguished.
The response from Exeter’s youngsters was impressive, as, from the resulting kick-off, Donati’s men quickly shrugged off the setback and went up the other end to put together another dangerous attack. After locating the space well, City worked play into a threatening position, before they saw two initial shots repelled. Substitute, Cutler, however, took aim and converted the third effort at goal to restore the lead and hand the Devon outfit the lead once again.
Despite Rovers putting up a fight in the final moments as they attempted to rescue a point, some strong defending from the away team saw them hold on as the full-time whistle sounded, meaning they were the ones left celebrating when the full-time whistle sounded, and they travelled back down the M5 with their first victory in this season’s Merit League Two.
Exeter City’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Tom Donati: “I’m really pleased. It is always nice to win, and sometimes you have to win ugly, but sometimes you win with a performance relevant to your style, and I thought this was the case here. The game was difficult, and they made it a real physical battle, and, along with the weather, there were several mitigating factors that made things tough, but this was a big step in the right direction.
“The boys stayed in control throughout except for a 10-15 minute spell which we need to be better at. No one at that point had any control in the game, but we need to be better at recognising that. Three changes at the same time may have made a difference but the goals we conceded were a real sucker-punch.
“We’ve been working hard on the same principles over the last few weeks, and we showed a lot of progress in that here. It was a different shape and formation, but we responded to it well, and there were some real positives in the performance.
“Some of the players of been recently given professional contracts, while others have had other kinds of news, so it is a difficult time. But the boys overall have shown good resilience, and the staff, as you expect have supported everyone. We have needed to stay together, and we will continue to do that over the next five games as it is a short spell, but a real chance to make good progress together.
“We are home to MK Dons next, before we play again on Tuesday. It is a good turnaround to play twice in a short space of time. MK are a team we don’t really play, but I know the team well as I know the staff. They are an Academy who have produced good players in the past, and their style is quite significant, so we’ll do our homework and prepare well before Saturday’s match.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Dylan Shanahan, Scott Simmons, Sam Joce, Liam Oakes, Tom Dean, Gabriel Billington, Jake Richards, Mitch Beardmore, Santino Ohanaka, Alfie Clark, George Spencer
Subs: Jacca Cavendish, Max Edgecombe, George Birch, Theo Cutler