A strong second-half showing from Exeter City’s under-18s saw them come away from their trip to Forest Green Rovers under-18s with a 4-2 win on Saturday.
The Grecians fell behind courtesy of two FGR goals in the space of a couple of minutes, however, Theo Cutler and Callum Graham both netted just before the interval to level the scores.
Despite both teams hitting the woodwork in the second period, Santino Ohanaka handed the Devon club the lead for the first time with just 13 minutes remaining.
Ohanaka scored his second, and his team’s fourth goal of the day in the dying minutes to wrap up the impressive victory, ensuring they climbed to sixth in the Youth Alliance South West division.
City’s youngsters travelled up the M5 looking to kick on from their 2-2 draw with Newport County the weekend before. A young side was selected as both Louie Cayless and Aidan Brown were handed starts, while the versatile Liam Oakes returned to the youth squad with a place on the bench.
But despite the unfamiliar line-up, the away side looked to implement the Exeter style on the game as they looked to play free-flowing football to unlock the opposition defence.
Arguably though, the opening quarter of the game was rather frantic, and both sets of players enjoyed plenty of turnovers in possession, with Rovers attempting to gain the initiative thanks to their aggressive, front-foot approach.
The home side took the lead on 21 minutes when they built from a short-corner routine. The ball moved inside to the side of the penalty area, and a deflected cross-shot took the ball beyond Dan Layer in the Grecians’ goal to open the scoring.
Forest Green added another two minutes later in fairly fortuitous circumstances. Cayless looked to clear his lines, however, his kick struck one FGR forward in the face. The ball fell to another home attacker, and he made no mistake from six yards to double the advantage.
That, in a way, sparked the Devonians into life, as they became braver with the ball, and located some good positions to play in. Harry Crees proved instrumental in their revival, while Ohanaka and Kieran Wilson began looking particularly threatening in the wider channels.
The deficit was halved in the 39th minute when Tom Dean and Ohanaka combined nicely in midfield. A neat through pass slipped in Cutler, and the City striker kept his composure to finish nicely to make it 2-1.
And the scores were level again a minute before the break. Wilson attacked down the left flank and showed real positivity as he crossed the ball into the danger area. Cutler wasn’t able to get on the receiving end of the centre, but winger Graham turned the ball home at the far post to restore parity.
The momentum remained with the visitors after half-time, and after tweaking their pressing tactics out of possession, their quality on the ball was excellent.
Rovers clipped the post with a shot from distance in the early moments of the second period, but an immediate response from Exeter saw Ohanaka go up the other end and strike the woodwork himself.
Oakes, alongside Jude Horn and Luke Hodgetts, were introduced from the Grecians' bench to freshen things up, as the team’s outstanding front-foot mentality saw them dictate most of the play.
The Devon outfit deservedly made it 3-2 after 77 minutes. City managed to isolate Wilson against the opponent’s full-back, and Wilson’s forward-thinking allowed him to get onto his weaker side and clip another dangerous ball into the box. Ohanaka was the recipient, and he converted from close range to make it a five-goal game.
The result was sealed three minutes from time as Ohanaka bagged his brace. Wilson again got the better of his man on the flank, before his centre found the Exeter number 10, and he buried his chance to score the visitors’ fourth, securing their first three-point haul since the opening match of the season.
Exeter City’s Head of Coaching & Player Development, Brad Miller: “We came away pretty happy it must be said. We picked an extremely young side with Jake Richards being selected for the bench for the first-team, and the squad having lots of injuries at present, but, we showed real endeavour and positivity, and a high competency in possession.
“Scott Simmons was our stand-out performer, but overall, the whole team were excellent. Tom Dean and Sam Joce were great, while youngsters, Louie Cayless and Harry Crees were very good also.
“Everyone played their part. The Under-15s and Under-16s were absolutely brilliant which demonstrates a real alignment in what we’ve asked the team to do. I’m really pleased with the togetherness we showed, and this would have provided valuable minutes for those guys wanting to earn scholarships, while it was also decent from those who are already scholars.
“This was the perfect preparation for our FA Youth Cup game on Monday night in terms of team minutes as we have recently had two Saturdays without a fixture. Ideally, we might have wanted an extra day to rest, but I’d like to think we are well equipped for the tie.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Dan Layer, Tom Dean, Louie Cayless, Scott Simmons, Sam Joce, Harry Crees, Aidan Brown, Callum Graham, Kieran Wilson, Santino Ohanaka, Theo Cutler
Subs: Ollie Saunders, Liam Oakes, Jude Horn, Jack Anthony, Luke Hodgetts