In a game of two halves, Exeter City’s Under-18s suffered a home defeat in a seven-goal thriller against Newport County Under-18s at the weekend.
The Exiles dominated the first half for long periods, and they took a four-goal cushion into half-time thanks to Tom Stokes’ hattrick, as well as a strike from Noah Preston-Watkins.
The Grecians fought back in the second half though, and a brace from striker Alfie Clark, as well as a low finish from Rohullah Mohammadi, saw the deficit reduced to just one.
City saw several late attempts at a leveller go agonisingly close, with Mohammadi coming closest when he struck the post, but, ultimately, the Westcountry side ended up coming away empty-handed following a rollercoaster ride of a game across the previous 90 minutes.
Following last week’s narrow defeat to Northampton Town U18s, Saturday saw Exeter’s youth side face off against Newport’s Academy side for the fourth time this season.
Fresh from signing his first professional contract with the club, Mitch Beardmore led out the Devonians, as Jake Richards and Jacca Cavendish accompanied the home skipper in midfield, while Rafa Beadman came into the heart of the defence.
On a day of mixed conditions, both teams showed some neat stuff in the early exchanges, but a lack of fluency in the final third meant the two goalkeepers had little to do during the opening 10 minutes.
It was Tom Donati’s side that put together the first meaningful attack when Tom Dean released Theo Cutler down the right flank. The forward dribbled past his opponent before his pull-back put the ball into a threatening position. Clark teed up Beardmore, but the playmaker’s 10-yard effort took a deflection and ended up being an easy gather for the County goalie.
In response, Andrew Sowden made a routine stop from the visitors, but in truth, the Wales club began to enjoy more of the territory as they used their high-pressing tactic to disrupt the Grecians’ game plan.
On 13 minutes, the Exiles broke the deadlock when they robbed the ball in midfield and broke forward quickly. Stokes dribbled into the box, before coolly slotting the ball past Sowden to open the scoring.
The hosts' early rhythm soon deserted them as they tried to build anything from deep, and, in the 18th minute, the advantage was doubled when the Grecians tried to build once again. With Newport able to win back the ball on the edge of the penalty area, they marched into the danger zone with ease, and a simple square ball left Sowden helpless as Stokes made it 2-0 with a tap-in.
The onslaught continued as the Devon youngsters struggled to get a foothold in the game. In almost a complete replica of their two previous goals, the away side netted again after half an hour when they intercepted another Exeter pass in the middle third. A through ball into Preston-Watkins gave the forward plenty of time, and he caressed the ball home for his side’s third.
Donati’s side tried to tighten things up defensively in fairness after, and looked to limit their opposition to fewer chances as they tried to move Beardmore and Richards further up the pitch, and get Cutler and Kye Cooper on the wings involved more.
County’s players, however, seemed relentless, and they forced Sowden into a decent save a little later, before they headed the ball off-target from the resulting corner.
The Welshmen flashed a shot past the left-hand upright four minutes before the break, before they did grab their fourth of the day in the final attack of the half. A direct pass fell in behind the home defence, which allowed Stokes to run onto it. Sowden looked to meet the Exiles attacker, but Stokes lobbed the ball over the onrushing goalie to complete his hattrick and seemingly put Newport out of sight.
The home team made a substitution at the interval, as Scott Simmons entered the fray. And with that personnel switch came a shift in attitude from the Grecians, as Clark fired an early second half snap-shot over.
Sowden, who had been largely unlucky with the first-half goals, then came to his teammates’ rescue as another Exiles forward was played in. The resulting effort looked goalbound, but a tremendous diving save saw the ball tipped onto the post and bounced clear.
As the clock ticked past the hour mark, both benches were used more frequently in an attempt to seize the initiative in the game. City duo, Sam Joce and Dean both saw shots fly above the visitors’ crossbar.
The affair began to hot up a little at the midpoint of the second period when Exeter’s players were starting to feel the momentum shift in their favour. Two quick bookings typified what the Welsh outfit were looking to do, but, in truth, Donati’s men were up in the possession stats and threatened several times.
With 15 minutes to go, the Devonians hauled themselves back into it with an attack down the right-hand side. Dean got to the byline and stood up a cross just in front of goal. With no real clearance, Clark reacted quickest, and the striker swivelled and smashed the ball in from close range to lift the mood in the red and white camp.
Further replacements in the shape of Mohammadi and Max Edgecombe came on to reinforce the Grecians’ impetus, and with their next attack, they were presented with another golden opportunity to reduce the lead.
Following a switch of play, new man, Aamir Daniels, played Beardmore into the 18-yard box with a neat pass. The captain’s nifty footwork saw him chopped down by a reckless challenge from the Exiles, leaving the referee no choice but to point to the spot. Clark confidently made it 4-2 by converting the penalty, and a sense of genuine belief could be felt around the pitch.
And that optimism increased 10-fold moments later as City netted again in the 81st minute.
Daniels demonstrated his positive impact from the bench once again by outpacing his opposite number on the left flank. The substitute's low ball rolled just behind Clark, but Mohammadi swept the ball into the bottom corner with superb technique which prompted a huge roar from the watching spectators.
With the momentum truly in their sails, Exeter flooded forward in the search of a dramatic equaliser.
After 86 minutes, Donati's side carved through their opponents once again with a surge forward down the right. George Birch's run was initially halted, but Dean picked up the loose ball and floated a cross into the middle. Mohammadi displayed real bravery in getting his head onto the centre, and after the effort bounced into the floor, the ball looped up and struck the top of the post much to the relief of the Newport contingent.
But still the Devonians were at it as the clock ticked into injury time. Clark picked the ball up outside of the area, before dribbling his way past several defenders to get himself within shooting distance of the goal. The number 9's powerful strike though was denied when the Welsh shot-stopper came out and made himself big at Clark's feet.
In the final minute of the game, another chance opened up for the hosts as Edgecombe regained possession. Dean and Simmons combined, before the latter danced his way into a dangerous position, however, the defender's strike was once again clawed away by the 'keeper.
That meant, that when the referee blew for full time, the Grecians went down to their second consecutive narrow defeat, and their first Merit League victory of the season still eludes them.
Exeter City’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Tom Donati: “I thought we didn’t really get going until after half-time. Initially, we thought our warm-up went relatively good, so it was very interesting to see that. We had a real mix of people, including people that didn’t train with us in the week, so it is sometimes hard to get that consistency when you have a lack of consistency in your preparation during the week.
“At the time, the first half was frustrating, but after looking back over the game, we created four or five good opportunities inside 12 yards of their goal, so there were still chances for us to score. In that first half, we didn’t look like a team, let alone an Exeter City team, but we sorted that out for the second half, but that ended up being far too late at that point.
“We made some personnel changes which made a difference, but I thought we were far more competitive in the second half, which was what was severely lacking in the first period, and a real bugbear of mine, as putting in the effort is a real must-have in your performance.
“Last week I mentioned this game was a good marker in terms of where we were since the last time we played Newport, and although the scoreline gives us one reflection, I thought the real marker came physically, as we had individuals playing out of position, but it ended up being a real benefit for their development and was the best thing for them which was pleasing.
“The team talk at half-time, although it was very much guided by myself, the players are starting to ascertain what is required, and what they needed to do was coming from themselves also. That is something that has come on massively over the last few weeks.
“The matches at the Under-18s level are a real platform for the boys to progress. Of course, we want to win, but we are looking at them as opportunities to stretch individuals and challenge the younger players. We knew Newport would be strong and were likely to be more experienced, but we trust in our process and what we are trying to do.
“Next week we play Bristol Rovers away, which will be another physical battle. It will be a tough and competitive game with an early start, but the players are used to that now. But the work we do during the week will be crucial, despite the players having a lot of things going on in their lives right now with GCSEs. But we are hopeful for a good week ahead, and then over the next six or seven weeks, hopefully, we can get the group together more often so we can continue to develop together.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Andrew Sowden, Rafa Beadman, Sam Joce, Liam Oakes, Tom Dean, Jacca Cavendish, Jake Richards, Mitch Beardmore, Alfie Clark, Theo Cutler, Kye Cooper
Subs: Scott Simmons, Max Edgecombe, Aamir Daniels, Rohullah Mohammadi, George Birch