The points were shared as Exeter City’s Under-18s drew with Portsmouth U18s in a six-goal thriller at the Cliff Hill Training Ground on Saturday.
Pompey’s Mitch Aston broke the deadlock in an edgy first period just five minutes before half-time, however, goals from Theo Cutler and Tom Dean turned the game around in just a few minutes shortly after the restart.
Cutler extended the City lead at the midpoint of the half through a Cutler penalty, but the visitors hit back through Luke Staight’s 73rd minute header to set up a thrilling finale.
With a minute to go, the away side broke Grecian hearts as Portsmouth’s Sam Folarin smashed home a leveller, meaning that, despite the disappointment of conceding late on, the draw here moved the Devonians onto 10 points, and extended their current unbeaten league run to five games.
After securing their second win of the season last weekend, Exeter’s youngsters were hoping to record another three points as they looked to continue moving themselves up the Youth Alliance league standings.
Pompey themselves were coming into the fixture off the back of a bright run of results, and had previously beat their opponents 4-0 at the start of the campaign.
The hosts opted for Ollie Saunders in between the sticks, while Aamir Stanford-Daniels and Callum Graham were selected as the wide men in the hope they could stretch the game and cause the Portsmouth backline some issues with their direct running.
The game, however, started rather cagey, as both teams looked to gain the upper hand in the early exchanges, trying to force one another into a mistake that they could take advantage of.
Both sets of players enjoyed some long spells of possession, but arguably, the defences were the real winners inside the opening quarter of an hour with neither goalkeeper properly tested.
City’s first real opportunity came on 16 minutes when Scott Simmons located Graham on the wing, but the resulting cross was just beyond Theo Cutler at the near post, before the ball was cleared away by the visitors.
The contest became a real tactical battle, with neither club able to establish a dominance. It took until the 32nd minute before the first shot on target came about, as Grecian skipper, Tom Dean, picked out Sam Joce with a set-piece, but the centre-back’s header was comfortably saved.
Pompey were perhaps edging the territory battle though, as they used the flanks to move up the pitch. And with five minutes of the first half remaining, they opened the scoring in spectacular style.
After winning a free-kick within shooting distance, Portsmouth’s captain, Aston, curled a beautiful free-kick beyond the reach of Palmer and into the top corner to stun everyone associated with the Devon outfit.
The two sides traded chances during the latter stages of the half, but, when the referee blew for the break, there was a sense that the game was still waiting to ignite.
Dan Layer and Giulio Marroni entered the fray for Exeter with the hope they could help turn the tide, and swing the match in the home side’s favour.
And following on from a strong restart, the equaliser arrived not long after when Graham lofted the ball over the opposition backline for Cutler to race on to. The City forward kept his composure, and slotted the ball just beyond the away goalie to restore parity after 53 minutes.
The momentum had truly shifted, and a confident Grecians started to look a lot more threatening.
Just a few moments on from their leveller, the Devonians netted again following some good all-round build-up play. Cayless retrieved possession and fed Graham on the right wing. His centre was missed by the ‘keeper, before Dean tucked the ball into the unguarded net to turn the game around.
Exeter’s youngsters possessed a real threat down the right hand side, and on the hour mark, the high energy levels of Aidan Bown were added to the visitors’ ranks.
The lead was doubled on 66 minutes when City moved forward down the right once again. The ball worked it’s way into the 18-yard box, and following a bit of a scramble, the ball was adjudged to have been handled by one scrambling defender, resulting in a Grecians spot-kick. Cutler stepped up and guided the ball into the bottom corner to make it 3-1.
Pompey, however, with their experience and physical advantage, never backed down, and refused to believe they were beat. Just seven minutes later, they pulled a goal back when a cross from Brian Quarm’s was converted by a committed diving header from Staight.
The impetus had been stolen back by the Portsmouth players, and, as the match entered the final 15 minutes, two efforts from the away team both went narrowly off-target.
Pompey thought they had grabbed their third of the day in the 81st minute following a surge down the left, and a cross into the danger zone.The ball was thumped in from close-range, however, the assistant referee flagged for an offside, keeping it at a five-goal game.
Portsmouth really turned the screw during the closing stages, and Layer denied the away team with a routine stop not long after, while they also clipped the top of the crossbar when they attacked through a set-piece routine.
In response, Stanford-Daniels blazed a half-chance wide for the Devon club, but seemingly it appeared that if the afternoon’s sixth goal did arrive, it was only going to go one way.
In the 89th minute, with more bodies sent forward, Pompey shifted the ball to the right once more through some intricate passing. Folarin outmuscled Cayless, and powered home an effort that was too good for Layer to level the scores in dramatic fashion.
The full-time whistle sounded not long after, and naturally, the hosts were disappointed not to hold on, however, a positive result and performance against a talented Portsmouth team can only give the Exeter players huge confidence going forward, ahead of their FA Youth Cup second round tie against Hemel Hempstead Town U18s on Friday.
Exeter City’s Head of Coaching & Player Development, Brad Miller: “It was certainly an entertaining game. I was particularly impressed with how the young group coped with what was thrown at them. There were challenges for them throughout the match - physically there was a mismatch with defender Louis Cayless going up against their striker. We rode our luck at times, but ultimately, I think a draw was a fair result.
“There wasn’t much going on at either end in the first period, and we cancelled each other out. We had a lot of possession trying to build something, but there wasn’t a lot of space to play through, and Portsmouth were used their mid-press well which restricted our front three. In the first half we showed some good build-up play, but couldn’t progress with it, and ultimately they scored a quality free-kick which was the difference at that stage.
“At half-time we spoke about our quality in possession, and mentioned about using different spaces and some creative moments to get into certain positions. We wanted more belief and bravery on the ball, and looked to get Tom Dean higher up the pitch. We knew it as going ok up until that creative phase of play, but I thought the lads took that on board, and were good value for their three goals when we managed to break through.
“Understandably, the lads were gutted at full-time. But we were playing a young lad at 14-years old in the middle of the defence, who I thought was outstanding, so there were going to be moments when he would physically wouldn’t be able to cope, and that ended up happening for their third goal. But we are happy to sacrifice that for his and the team’s development. We want the boys to have a winning mentality, but there is a positive outlook on all of this.
“We ended up taking a few of the older scholars off, and the younger lads who have come in have really helped and had an impact for us. Their impacts are nice to see in Under-18s football, because we have a thin group, and they have rather complimented the rest of the squad.
“We play away at Hemel Hemstead in the FA Youth Cup on Friday, which will be a good experience for the lads. It will be a long distance travel game, meaning the lads will have to eat right and prepare professionally. But the boys love the FA Youth Cup, and hopefully we can progress into round three with a good performance and positive result.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Ollie Saunders, Louie Cayless, Scott Simmons, Sam Joce, Liam Oakes, Harry Crees, Tom Dean, Aamir Stanford-Daniels, Callum Graham, George Birch, Theo Cutler
Subs: Dan Layer, Kye Cooper, Aidan Bown, Jude Horn, Giulio Marroni