Exeter City’s Under-18s bowed out of the Youth Alliance Cup with a 3-2 defeat away at Sutton United U18s on Saturday.
The U’s acclimatised to the conditions quickly, and three first-half goals gave them the ascendancy in the tie.
However, the Grecians displayed some better character and quality after the break, and defender, Scott Simmons, scored from a free-kick to half the deficit.
Simmons bagged another with just over 10 minutes of regular time remaining, however, City were unable to find another, meaning the Devonians were knocked out of this season’s competition.
Due to the long distance and early kick-off time, Exeter’s youth side travelled up to Sutton the day before where preparations seemed to go well ahead of the crucial cup clash.
Ollie Saunders was once again named in goal for the visitors, while Max Edgecombe returned to the starting XI to captain the side.
On a rather narrow pitch, the game began quite tight, with neither team really giving one another an inch of space.
While the Grecians looked to keep the ball on the floor, with which they found difficulties when they tried advancing up the pitch, United played with a direct nature, and that allowed them to move through the thirds quite effectively.
The home side broke the deadlock when they played the ball in behind the City defence for their wide man. He was able to get within shooting distance of the Devon club’s goal, before slotting the ball in at the near post to open the scoring.
Exeter’s players were a little slow with their pressing game, therefore allowing their opponents the chance to gain the upper hand. A number of fouls were committed as a result, which then enabled the U’s to cause problems when they lofted the ball from any resulting set-piece.
Sutton doubled their advantage from a corner when one player rose unchallenged, and he was able to divert the ball into the back of the net for 2-0.
Just before the interval, the hosts added a third from another dead-ball situation on the edge of the penalty area. The direct free-kick was parried away by Saunders, but another United forward converted the rebound to compound the away team’s first-half misery.
Some honest conversations and tactical tweaks at half-time gave the Grecians some extra heart after the restart, and with both full-backs playing a little narrower, that allowed the wingers more space to exploit the opposition.
With more quality in their possession, City were arguably getting on top in the game, and with them able to move the ball into dangerous areas, some crosses that flashed in front of the hosts’ goal could have been converted had more players committed themselves forward.
But the Devon outfit did pull a goal back when they made the most of one of their own set-pieces. After winning a free-kick wide on the left, Edgecombe whipped a dangerous delivery into the danger area. Sam Joce won his aerial duel to glance a header against the post, before Simmons reacted the quickest to turn the ball in from close range to reduce the deficit.
Exeter continued to come forward and create more of the openings, and as the game entered the final period, they made it 3-2 to set up a thrilling finale.
The visitors worked a short corner to Edgecombe, before the skipper curled another delicious ball into the 18-yard box. Coming onto the ball was Simmons, and his first-time finish was too good for the U’s goalkeeper making it a five-goal game.
With more men thrown forward in the hope that they could force extra-time, the Grecians piled on the pressure, but, they were unable to create one more golden chance, and ultimately, they ran out of time as the referee blew for the end of the game shortly after.
Exeter City’s Academy Operations & Performance Manager, Arran Pugh: “We’ve ended up losing game, but both the staff and the players thought we could have won it. Ultimately, this is all about developing players to the highest level they can possibly get to, but this is also a cup competition and one step away from the semi-finals of the regional round, so the players wanted to get through to have another competitive game to experience.
“I think the preparation was really good. The attitude from the boys was spot on, so credit to them. We ended up playing at an alternative venue, and the tight pitch was unexpected. We always aim to dominate possession, and create opportunities by playing through the lines, but it wasn’t a great surface. It was the same for both teams though, and ultimately, we needed to be better at playing our own way.
“In professional football, you have to be adaptable, and be able to solve problems while nullifying the opposition. We have a good group of players here, but they needed more confidence, quality, and consistency in passing and receiving the ball in those tight situations as well as with their pressing intensity. From our perspective, you have to be good enough to play at the levels we want to play at, and, in the first half, we didn’t do that, and didn’t show quality in the technical basics.
“It was another learning opportunity, and despite losing, it certainly wasn’t all doom and gloom and all negative. But we have got to look at what is required in order to show what we are all about. In the second half we showed a bit more quality in possession, working some nice overlaps and underlaps. We were the better team in the second half, and had more possession and territory, and we showed more quality when we wanted to.
“This coming weekend we are looking to arrange a friendly match as it is a while until our next league fixture. When you look at it, the boys are in with us six out of the seven days, and, typically, only one of those is a match day, so five of them are training, therefore making it a bigger part of the players’ journeys. We want them working on all parts of their development, ready for their next challenge, and every day is a chance for them to get better as players and as a people.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Ollie Saunders, Tom Dean, Liam Oakes, Sam Joce, Scott Simmons, Max Edgecombe, Giulio Marroni, Alfie Cunningham, George Birch, Kieran Wilson, Santino Ohanaka
Subs: Harry Crees, Liam Cartwright