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📝 Under-18 Report: City 1 Forest Green Rovers 2

Derek Baker reports on defeat for the young Grecians

11 April 2024

Match Reports

📝 Under-18 Report: City 1 Forest Green Rovers 2

Derek Baker reports on defeat for the young Grecians

11 April 2024

Exeter City’s Under-18s narrowly lost 2-1 to Forest Green Rovers U18s on Saturday in their sixth game of this season’s Merit League Two.

With neither team able to seize control, Rovers broke the deadlock on 38 minutes when they reacted first to a loose ball in the penalty area.

FGR doubled their advantage just before the hour mark when a thumping header from a corner was too good for City goalkeeper, Sam Down.

The Grecians pulled a goal back with three minutes remaining through George Birch, however, it came too late, meaning the Devon outfit were unable to secure their first points since the beginning of March.

Exeter’s youngsters welcomed Forest Green’s youth team to the Cliff Hill Training Ground, hoping they could end a run of four consecutive defeats in the Merit League.

Nicky Ajose brought Tom Dean and Callum Graham back into the starting XI, whilst Down and Tobias Alsop, both Under-15s, were also notable selections.

And those personnel changes seemed to have the desired effect early on as the hosts conjured up a wonderful opportunity after just four minutes when Theo Cutler won possession high up the pitch. Dean was able to tee up Joe O’Connor, but the midfielder placed the ball just wide to give the opposition an early scare.

In extremely blustery conditions though, it was the away side who had the wind advantage, and it was quite evident in their first forays forward that their threat came from some long direct passes into the City defensive third.

In the 14th minute, Rovers tried their luck from a set piece, however, Down pushed the effort away from danger with a strong stop.

FGR’s captain had shown some nice touches in the opening quarter, and he whistled a shot just over the crossbar when he went for goal from distance.

The Grecians looked their most dangerous when they were able to implement their high press effectively. On 33 minutes, Birch stole possession from a Forest Green midfielder, before he linked up with Dean. The Exeter number eight though saw his attempt repelled by a good defensive block.

Five minutes later, the visitors opened the scoring in rather fortuitous circumstances. Rovers once again tried their luck from long-range through their skipper, however, this time, the shot crashed against the crossbar. On its way down, the ball brushed Down’s back, and on hand, another FGR player tucked the rebound away from close range to make it 1-0.

The Devonians were unfortunate not to level just before the interval following a strong run down the left from Kieron Wilson. His cross found Graham in the 18-yard box, but he could only send his volley over the top.

Just nine minutes into the second half, Exeter squandered another decent opening when Dean blasted a volley off-target.

And the home team were punished for their misses, as shortly after a second goal came for Forest Green after they won themselves a corner. The out swinging ball was met perfectly by one of the Rovers players, and he guided his header just inside the post to extend his side’s lead.

The victory arguably could have been sealed just a few moments later when the away team slipped one of their forwards through on goal. He was able to beat Down to the ball, but, with the goal gaping, he shot just the wrong side of the post to keep it at 2-0.

Despite the deficit, City continued to look to build patiently with some sharp passing. But they were almost punished when they gave the ball away deep in their own half in the 61st minute. FGR fired a low shot at goal, but Down’s diving save kept his team in it.

Up the other end, Wilson was doing his utmost to haul his side back into the contest, and his bright run at the midpoint of the second period typified his determination, however, his cross-shot was smartly stopped by the opposition goalkeeper.

But during this period of the game, more of the action came at the Grecians’ end. Down once again showed his quality in the 71st minute when he made a tremendous 1v1 save, before the follow-up saw Forest Green fail twice to trouble the scores.

The final quarter of an hour, however, belonged to the Devon club, as they threw more bodies forward. Centre-back, Louie Cayless, was at the heart of an excellent Exeter move in the 75th minute when he marched forward and advanced down the right. The resulting cross located Birch, whose shot was denied by a great stop, before Harry Crees was unable to reach the rebound in time.

The right flank was proving to be a productive avenue for the hosts, and Birch, now in a forward role, was inches away from making clean contact with Dean’s centre to turn it goalwards.

Fine margins often make a big difference in matches, and that proved to be the case once again on 83 minutes when City came forward again through Cayless. Dean was the recipient of the subsequent pass, and the Grecians’ skipper shot for goal, only to see the ball cannon off of the crossbar and away to safety.

Just a few minutes later, an Exeter corner was somehow scrambled away as the pressure kept on coming from the Devon side.

In the 87th minute, their efforts were rewarded when Dean played in Birch. Some good physicality from the versatile youngster saw him shrug off a challenge from one defender, before he coolly rounded the away goalie and slotted the ball into the back of the net to set up a grandstand finish.

And just before the clock entered injury-time, the home team twice came close to a leveller through Wilson. At first, the winger blasted an opportunity inches wide, before another attempt was turned away for a corner.

But with City unable to turn that corner into anything more, the referee blew with the scoreline at 2-1, meaning the Grecians remain in seventh place in the league standings, with just two fixtures remaining.

Speaking about the result, Chris McPhee said: “We knew what to expect from the opponent, and the boys were getting some reward from their high press, but we didn’t show enough enthusiasm or character in our performance, and when you have such a young and inexperienced team, sometimes you are missing that voice, or communication, and although we had some good passages, if a team has one or two characters that can cover the ground and take the game by the scruff of the neck, that is beneficial overall.

“We probably played some of the better football, but they mixed up their game, and our press wasn’t as good as it could have been. The goals we conceded were avoidable, so it is disappointing to lose. We are improving defensively with dealing with direct play, but there are always moments when you can improve. It was a young backline once again with another Under-15 coming in at left-back, and aside from Tom Dean and Joe O’Connor, we were quite young once again, but it is great to see the backline being adaptable with the conditions, and with the second half, with the ball being held up in the wind, these are all experiences the players can learn from.

“I felt the way we played after changes had been made, the boys that came on helped us shorten the play, and I thought Aidan Bown was crisp with his passing. But we weren’t able to capitalise on the promising moments, and that final pass or cross was just missing. While the way we play isn’t massively influenced by the wind, and we didn’t utilise it like Forest Green did, we allowed ourselves to be braver by defending higher up the pitch.

“We play a friendly behind closed doors against Nottingham Forest U18s on Tuesday, which will be another difficult test, before we play Newport County U18s in the league. The boys are desperate to finish the season strongly, and they will want to give a good account of themselves midweek, before getting some points on the board at the weekend as we didn’t do ourselves Justine the last time we played Newport. The team have put a lot of work in during this calendar year, so in these final few games, we want to put the last bits we have worked on into practice. Going into the summer off the back of some good results is always better, and we want to keep pushing everyone so they are ready for next season.”

Exeter City Under-18s: Sam Down, Louie Cayless, Liam Cartwright, Tobias Alsop, Liam Oakes, Tom Dean, George Birch, Joe O’Connor, Callum Graham, Kieron Wilson, Theo Cutler

Subs: Harry Crees, Aidan Bown, Santino Ohanaka


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