Exeter City’s Under-18s moved into round two of the Youth Alliance Cup following a penalty shoot-out victory over Oxford United U18s on Saturday.
Jack Lee broke the deadlock for the Yellows with a neat first-time finish, before Josh Hilton doubled the advantage when he netted at the back post.
But a strong second half showing from the Grecians saw them pull a goal back shortly after half-time when Theo Cutler curled an effort past goalkeeper Monty Marriott.
Tom Dean’s close-range finish made it 2-2 in the 69th minute, and despite the Devonians being reduced to 10 men in the dying minutes, the game went straight to penalties, with Exeter’s youngsters securing victory due to a 5-4 scoreline in the shoot-out.ECFC’s U18s Lead Coach, Tom Donati, took his players eastwards with the hope they could bounce back from their recent slump in league form with a positive cup performance against a talented Oxford outfit.
The visitors welcomed Sam Joce into the starting XI for the first time this season, while Sean Hart teamed up with Cutler and Alfie Cunningham in an exciting forward line.
But it was the U’s who started the contest stronger, as Louis Griffiths saw two chances fall his way inside the opening 10 minutes.
United’s Rashane Maxwell cleared the ball from under his own crossbar as a dangerous centre from a City attack worked its way through to a threatening position.
A quick drinks break allowed the Grecians’ coaching staff to try and solve the team’s early issues, but the momentum never subsided, with the home team unlucky not to have won themselves a penalty in the next flashpoint as Zaide Took-Oxley reached a loose ball ahead of a defender, however, the referee waved away the protests.
Just before the half-hour mark, Holton teed up Kasway Burton for the Yellows, but Dylan Shanahan in the Exeter goal parried the shot away from danger.
The breakthrough came after 35 minutes when Oxford’s Marriott punted the ball long from a goal kick to locate Burton. The winger won his aerial duel before he dribbled down the flank and pulled the ball back for Lee, who finished decisively to break the deadlock.
Moments before the interval, the U’s bagged a second when they worked the ball into an advanced area. Play moved towards the middle of the goalmouth, and it was Holton who reached the ball first at the far stick to guide the ball into the back of the net to make it 2-0.
In response, Donati switched formation to a back-four, which in turn helped with the pressing tactic they deployed out of possession.
That really helped the Devon club get on the front foot, alongside the introduction of Kieran Wilson and George Birch from the bench. The away side halved the deficit in the early stages of the second period after Maxwell lost possession. That high regain allowed Cutler to get on the ball in a dangerous position, and he bent a lovely finish past the ‘keeper to bring his team back into it.
While Burton and Lee continued to try and make things happen in attack for United, the majority of the action was at the other end of the pitch, in complete contrast to the first 45 minutes.
City drew level just as the clock ticked into the final quarter. The Grecians initially tried their luck from a free-kick, which crashed against Marriott’s crossbar, but Dean reacted quickest to the rebound, and he forced the ball over the line to complete the comeback.
With just a few minutes of regular time remaining, Exeter’s Giullio Marroni received a second yellow card, which meant Donati’s men had to hold out for the remaining minutes to secure the level scoreline.
Some strong mental attributes aided the Devonians through a tricky final period, meaning that when the referee did eventually blow for full-time, and with the format of the competition forcing ties to be decided on the day, the lottery of penalties was going to determine who progressed into the second round.
Cutler and Dean both scored from 12 yards, and, following Tobias Brenan’s missed attempt, Wilson kept his composure to hand the advantage to the visitors. Scott Simmons and Alfie Cunningham also netted, which meant City scored all of their kicks, and therefore triumphed 5-4 to secure their name in the hat for the next round.Exeter City’s Under-18s Lead Coach, Tom Donati: “We didn’t start particularly well and couldn’t get our press right in the system we adopted. At the drinks break, we tried adjusting things, and then at half-time 2-0 down, we had to change things still, so we altered our shape and went to a back four, and changed some of our personnel, where we brought on Kieran Wilson, who is a new addition to the squad, and George Birch, who has come back from injury, and they played either side of our attack.
“It was a game of two halves really, and after we changed shape, the boys really adapted well to it. Harry Crees, an Under-16, came on for just his second appearance this season, and gave us a composure in midfield, so all three subs made a real impact. After it went 2-2, we still dominated and created some good chances. But following the sending off, the character and resilience we showed to get through to full-time was good.
“I hope we get a team we don’t play too often in the next round. We don’t prioritise any competition as we see every game as important as the next. We will take one game at a time, but I want the boys to focus on their development day-by-day, where every training session, and every game matters. Ultimately, we want to get as far as we can in the cup, and silverware would have to be the aim, but we just want to push ourselves up to the next level.
“We need to work on our shape out of possession, and make it clear what is required. We have a lot of fresh faces coming back into the group so everyone is still learning. Both goals here were poor to concede, but our play at goals showed some individual brilliance at times, and we were able to create chances through what we had been working on in training.
“We play Bristol Rovers in the league next, who play in a particular style. Primarily we have to take care of ourselves first. We are conceding far too many goals at the moment, but we’re creating lots of good scoring opportunities also. It will be another competitive game for us.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Dylan Shanahan, Scott Simmons, Sam Joce, Max Edgecombe, Liam Oakes, Kye Cooper, Tom Dean, Guilio Marroni, Alfie Cunningham, Sean Hart, Theo Cutler
Subs: Harry Crees, Liam Cartwright, Jack Anthony, George Birch, Kieran Wilson