Exeter City’s Under-18s moved into round two of the FA Youth Cup following a 5-3 extra-time victory away at Reading City on Monday evening.
Despite the Cityzens making an early breakthrough, strikes from Tom Dean, Alfie Cunningham and an own goal put the Devonians ahead at the break.
The team from Reading, however, fought back following the restart, and after scoring at the beginning and end of the half, an injury-time spot-kick took the tie into an additional 30 minutes.
But goals from Exeter’s Theo Cutler and Callum Graham meant the away side wrapped up the victory, making their 300-mile round trip that much sweeter.
The Grecians’ youth side arrived at the Rivermoor Stadium with the hope that they could kick on from last Saturday’s league victory, and secure another positive result in a competition that has served the club well in recent seasons.
Tom Dean captained the Devon club once again, while the duo of Giulio Marroni and Jake Richards returned in the middle of midfield.
From the first whistle, the opening exchanges were rather frantic, as the home team looked to get out of the traps early, while the soft and wet pitch meant the possession game an Exeter side would normally adopt, was made rather challenging.
That early intent from the Cityzens paid dividend in just the third minute as they caught out the Grecians’ backline when they didn’t deal with one of the opening assaults forward. A foul inside the 18-yard box came as a result, and the Reading side buried the resulting penalty with real assurance to make it 1-0 early on.
That conceded effort prompted an immediate reaction from the away team, and they began to get on the front foot, enjoying long spells of possession, as they utilised the space that came from their precise passing.
With Dean able to get high up the pitch for the Grecians, he managed to lead by example by levelling the scores just before the 20-minute mark. Sam Joce played a lovely diagonal ball to his skipper, and his touch inside allowed him to get into a shooting position, and Dean flashed a shot inside the near post to restore parity.
With the momentum truly in their favour, the Devonians took the lead shortly after their first score. Cunningham slipped in Dean, before he marched into the box and got on the receiving end of the cross that followed with a diving header. The ball went beyond the goalkeeper and across the line for 2-1, delighting everyone in red and white.
While Exeter’s youngsters were in charge of the contest, they weren’t quite hitting top gear, and they could have perhaps made more of their control if they utilised the time and space they gave themselves when they moved the ball across the pitch.
They did, however, double their advantage just before half-time when Dean got in down his flank once again. His dangerous ball into the centre put the opposition in disarray, and one defender ended up diverting the ball past his own ‘keeper to make it a four-goal game.
In the second period, the hosts came out with real intent as they looked to get back onto the front foot with their aggressive nature out of possession.
The Grecians failed to match the levels of the Reading players, and they grabbed a goal back in the 46th minute when the Devon outfit failed to clear a ball that came into the danger zone. With goalie Dan Layer unable to deal with the cross, the Cityzens turned the ball into the unguarded net to get back within one.
The rest of the half provided very few chances as the match became extremely tight, with Reading really upping the ante with their hard-working and competitive nature.
Exeter’s Kieran Wilson offered a few positive glimpses with some half-chances, as he got forward out wide, but, in truth, it was four substitutions that provided a renewed impetus to proceedings.
On came Harry Crees, Aidan Bown, Jude Horn and Callum Graham, and they added an extra zip to the game, as the away side looked to secure the win.
In the final 10 minutes, spaces started opening up for the Grecians on the counter-attack, as their opponents threw more bodies forward in their search for a leveller. However, the Devon club were unable to make the most of their attacks, and a lack of precision in the final third only restricted the team to a couple half-chances.
With just seconds remaining, the Rivermoor Stadium broke into celebration as a corner routine led to Cutler committing a foul inside the penalty area, resulting in the referee pointing to the spot for the second time in the evening. The hosts’ 12-yard attempt was converted and extra-time was forced, much to the disappointment of the Exeter personnel.
However, following the full-time whistle, the visitors’ coaching staff gathered their players together to recompose them, and remind them of the game plan they had to implement to pick up the victory.
Just five minutes into extra-time, the first big opportunity arrived when the Grecians cut through the opposition lines. Crees played a lovely weighted pass to Cutler, and he confidently dispatched his effort to make it 4-3, settling his teammates down further as the team turned the screw.
Up the other end, the Cityzens remained in the contest while the scores were just separated by one, and they created a good chance which Layer was more than equal to as he saved well. Following that, however, the Reading outfit were restricted to set-pieces which were defended solidly by the Devonians’ backline.
Exeter maintained their one-goal lead for the rest of the extra 30-minute period, until the final kick of the game, when they confirmed it was their name going into the hat for the second round.
Crees produced another wonderful assist when he fed fellow substitute Graham, and the attacker slotted the ball home past the hosts’ shot-stopper to round off a rollercoaster of an evening for everyone involved.
Exeter City’s Under-18s will travel to Hemel Hempstead Town U18s in round two of the FA Youth Cup. Full details of the game will be available soon.
Exeter City’s Head of Coaching & Player Development, Brad Miller: “Firstly, I have to give a massive respect to Reading City U18s. Compliments have to go to the way that they approached the tie, and they competed very well against our boys. I wish them the very best for the rest of the season.
“I thought our team showed resilience, persistence, and emotional control. These nights are so valuable to them, and the players feel they are in a position under pressure, not from us as coaches, but in this competition to play well, and it was really pleasing to see that they dealt with that. The Under-16s that came on in the second half all made an impact- Aidan Bown and Jude Horn were good, Harry Crees got two assists and Callum Graham scored again. I was very pleased to see they all had a fine game.
“Playing at a non-league stadium like that provides valuable experiences for the boys, and we’d like to do that more often like we do when we play at Tiverton. The pitches are different, the game is under the floodlights, and we go on a bit of a journey to get there - These are all things the boys will have to get used to if they earn careers in football, and that is why these experiences are vital for us. The FA Youth Cup helps prepare the players for those instances, and we fully respect the competition, and the opposition we come up against in it.
“The lads are tired. They had a tough game at the weekend against Forest Green Rovers U18s, and went into extra-time following a tough game here, but they’ll take confidence from those two matches. The squad’s application over the last few weeks has been fantastic. Due to the several competitions we are competing in, we may have a mixed squad once again on Saturday, but, whoever is selected to pull on the Exeter City shirt, there comes an expected level of performance with it.
“We play Portsmouth U18s on Saturday, who always give us a great game. They are highly competitive and a fantastic academy, and were very good when we faced them at the start of the season. It will be a difficult test for the boys, but they will be able to draw upon the experiences they’ve gained from the last few weeks to hopefully perform well.
Exeter City Under-18s: Dan Layer, Tom Dean, Scott Simmons, Sam Joce, Liam Oakes, Giulio Marroni, Jake Richards, Alfie Cunningham, Kieran Wilson, George Birch, Theo Cutler
Subs: Ollie Saunders, Harry Crees, Aidan Bown, Jude Horn, Callum Graham, Santino Ohanaka