Exeter City’s under-18s bowed out of the second round of the FA Youth Cup following a 5-2 defeat away at Hemel Hempstead U18s on Friday night.
An early breakthrough from Theo Cutler handed the Grecians the advantage, however, Bradley Smith’s leveller came just a few moments later typifying the rather frantic start under the floodlights.
Cutler’s second goal handed the Devonians the initiative once again, before the first-half goal-fest ended with the hosts’ second equaliser through George Still.
Town got on top after the break though, and strikes courtesy of Mekhi Roberts, a Still penalty, and one from Sam Ejjayha fired the Tudors into round three of this season’s prestigious cup competition.
City’s youngsters travelled eastwards in the hope that they could keep up their recent good form and transfer that into the knockout format of the FA Youth Cup at the Focus Community Arena.
Giulio Marroni, Santino Ohanaka and Alfie Cunningham came into Exeter’s starting XI, while George Birch dropped to the bench.
And the changes for the visitors seemed to have the desired effect in the opening stages as they produced a lively start, in the hope they could establish a front-foot mentality and control proceedings.
The sharpness in the Grecians’ passing was the main catalyst in finding an early breakthrough, as a well-worked team move allowed Scott Simmons to play a ball into the heart of Hemel’s backline. Cutler latched onto the ball nicely, and the striker took his chance confidently to make it 1-0 after five minutes.
The Hertfordshire club showed little sign of panic despite conceding, and they were rightly rewarded with a goal just a few minutes later when they took advantage of some sloppy phases of possession by their opponents. After retrieving the ball, the home side exploited the space that was left, and a devastating volley at the back post from Smith delighted the Town fans.
In truth, the Devon outfit responded well and showed real bravery on the ball as they looked to play through the lines.
City retook the lead when Cunningham turned in midfield before his through pass located Cutler. The forward made space for a shot, and curled a beautiful shot in at the near post for 2-1.
At the midpoint of the first period, the Tudors drew level once again when they broke quickly after another regain in possession. After exposing the Exeter defence, Still struck an effort beyond goalkeeper Dan Layer to restore parity.
But despite the even scoreline, there remained an optimism from the away coaches for the second half.
Arguably, however, the crucial moment of the tie came on 55 minutes when Roberts’ cross floated beyond Layer and fell straight into the back of the net, giving the home side the lead for the first time on the night.
After the momentum shifted in favour of the Hertfordshire team, the Grecians were unable to get a foothold, and they found themselves on the backfoot for the majority of the rest of the match. The second period altogether produced very few chances, and the Town defence held out solidly despite what the opposition threw at them.
The Devonians thought they may have had a lifeline when the Tudors were reduced to 10 men, however, City’s players were still unable to deal with the counter-attacking threat their opponents possessed.
That swift forward movement from Hemel helped them double their lead when Exeter’s Harry Crees committed a foul inside the 18-yard box. Still converted the resulting spot-kick to make it 4-2 with around a quarter of an hour remaining.
Kieran Wilson came on for the Devon club and came close to reducing the deficit, however, the result was finalised as the tie headed towards its climax after Town won themselves a late corner. With the visitors unable to clear, the ball fell in front of goal, and the ball was bundled home from close range after a bit of a scramble from Ejjayha to make it 5-2.
Despite a few half-chances in the closing stages, the full-time whistle sounded not long after, confirming it was the Tudors who progressed into the third round, where they will face Sheffield Wednesday U18s. Meanwhile, City’s youth side return to league action again next, with an away trip to Swindon Town U18s this weekend.
Exeter City’s Head of Coaching & Player Development, Brad Miller: “Firstly congratulations have to go to Hemel. They were the better side on the night and deserved their victory. I wish them all the best for their game against Sheffield Wednesday U18s and I have to thank them for their hospitality during our visit.
“The lads are gutted and disappointed not to have come through this one. We didn’t demonstrate our core values enough, and collectively, we have got to be much better. The boys, to be fair to them, have reacted much better in training already, and they are using this game as a real learning experience.
“The third goal took it out of the boys and was the main catalyst for why we were second best after half-time. We almost panicked a little after conceding that, lost all composure, and started to deviate from the game plan. That was a good lesson for the players because it is all about your decisions during key moments, and you have got to stick with your principles.
“The boys didn’t deal with the counter-attack well and they were exposed several times. We have faced that kind of threat before, and we have got the quality to deal with that, but we fell short in the habits that were required. Some elements were ok in our first half performance - we were good with the ball relatively, utilised the spaces and took our goals nicely, but ultimately, that was only evident in one half of the game.
“The boys are looking forward to showing a reaction with our game against Swindon next. That is the beauty of football, where you can move on pretty quickly, but learn from the previous game. It will provide an opportunity for the players to get better and move forward with their development goals, and like all matches against them, I’m expecting another tough game against a good side.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Dan Layer, Scott Simmons, Sam Joce, Liam Oakes, Tom Dean, Harry Crees, Giulio Marroni, Alfie Cunningham, Callum Graham, Santino Ohanaka, Theo Cutler
Subs: Ollie Saunders, Liam Cartwright, Kye Cooper, Aidan Bown, George Birch