Exeter City’s Under-18s secured an impressive and vitally important 2-1 victory against rivals, and table-toppers, Plymouth Argyle U18s, on Saturday.
Argyle started on top, but the Grecians worked their way into the contest and broke the deadlock through Pedro Borges when he netted from a corner in the 27th minute.
The second half mirrored the first period, and Tegan Finn restored parity just five minutes after the restart to set up an intriguing contest.
Both sides pushed for a second goal, but it was City who got it, courtesy of substitute Kieran Wilson, whose goal six minutes from time sealed the win, and the three points that has moved Exeter’s youngsters into the top three of the Youth Alliance South West division.
The Grecians travelled down the A38 with the hope they would be able to continue the good run of form they had built up with another strong performance in the small matter of a Devon Derby.
Giulio Marroni and Kye Cooper lined up from the beginning following their respective spells out of the City starting XI, while Harrison King was brought in as he looked to continue his journey back to full fitness following his injury earlier on this campaign.
The Pilgrims side looked to start proceedings quickly, and they won themselves an early set-piece following a foray down the right. After everyone thought a cross was to enter the box, a neat short-corner routine saw Plymouth work the ball into Joe Hatch at the near post, however, his shot cannoned back off the post and away from danger.
Those early warning signs continued to come for the away side, and in the seventh minute, after Argyle won possession through Caleb Roberts, Finn and Hatch combined, but, Dylan Shanahan in the Exeter goal denied the latter’s strike at goal.
The Grecians struggled to get a foothold in the game until a quarter of an hour in, and their first attack forward might’ve led to something had their accuracy been better; Tom Dean advanced down the right, and his cross just evaded Cooper, who was creeping in around the back.
The belief and confidence in the City play was ever-growing, and while the opposition enjoyed the bulk of the ball and territory, the visitors’ charges up the pitch displayed more ambition as time went on.
That determination led to Exeter winning a corner on 27 minutes following a quick break forward involving Dean and Cooper. The Grecians captain swung a dangerous cross in, and with Dan Holman unable to deal with it properly, Borges tapped home from close range to make the breakthrough.
The hosts, alongside their supporters, were stunned, but they looked to make amends shortly after with some more controlling spells of possession.
In the 34th minute, Argyle’s Fin Wilkes teed up Roberts, however, the midfielder saw his effort turned away by some desperate defensive efforts, before the Pilgrims wasted the rebound.
Plymouth conjured up one more meaningful attack just before the interval when they attacked down the left wing. After play managed to switch sides, home captain, Lewis Colwell, fired over from 20 yards, much to the frustration of his teammates.
The 15-minute break perhaps came at a good time for Argyle, while Nicky Ajose and the Grecian players were hoping to make it through their opponent’s second-half response unscathed.
But, like the first period, the Pilgrims picked up the tempo and their intentions to score early were very clear.
In the 50th minute, Plymouth’s attacking pressure told after City initially defended a corner. The ball bounced kindly for Roberts, who let fly from distance, and Shanahan reacted well to push the strike away. But the fall fell to the feet of Finn, who reacted quickly to tuck the rebound beyond the Exeter goalie and into the back of the net to level the scores.
The away side reacted by bringing on Wilson and Tobias Alsop for a completely different structure to their left side. But it was Shanahan who was continuing to shine for the Grecians, and he magnificently tipped Josh Bernard’s header over his own crossbar to keep it at a two-goal game.
Five minutes later, the hosts attacked through Joel Sullivan on the left, before his cross located Hatch, just a few yards out, however, the Argyle number nine squandered a great opportunity by diverting his header off-target.
The Grecians’ threat at the other end of the pitch remained though, and a promising attack at the midway point of the half saw Theo Cuter played through one-on-one with Holman; Although the City striker converted his chance, play was brought back as he had just strayed offside.
Shanahan continued to thwart the Pilgrims, and after saving another shot on 68 minutes, he then played a part in Hatch only finding the side netting when the Plymouth forward looked to round Shanahan after beating the offside trap.
Dean also was becoming more and more influential for visitors after he moved into midfield, and he was desperately unlucky not to score when he wriggled his way amongst a crowd of bodies to send a shot goalwards. His attempt, however, rattled the post, before the second phase of the attack saw the Exeter number eight denied by a brave block.
Arguably, that phase helped open the game up as both sets of players backed themselves to find a second goal. Both benches continued to be utilised as the coaches looked to swing the match in their favour in the final 10 minutes.
On 84 minutes, that advantage fell the visitors’ way when another promising attack meant they got into the red zone down the right-hand side. A low ball into the middle found Dean, whose shot was turned away by the Argyle ‘keeper, but the ball fell into Wilson’s path, and he maintained his composure to score from close range to send the Grecians’ fans wild.
Wilson’s confidence was up, and the substitute caused more havoc down the wing a few minutes later as he looked to wrap up the three points. The forward cut in and shot at goal, but Holman parried the ball away.
Injury-time saw the hosts throw everything forward, and they won a late corner as they looked to grab a dramatic equaliser, however, City’s defence were resilient and turned away anything that was sent into the danger area.
The referee blew for full time in the 94th minute, sparking celebrations form the Exeter players and fans after their victory put an end to their opponent’s four-game winning streak, and was their first win over their rivals since September 2022.
Exeter City’s Under-18s Assistant Coach, Chris McPhee: “It was a game we expected to a degree. We weren’t quite at our usual high standards on the ball as we have been, and early on, that was down to some good defending by our opponents. But we were one goal up at half-time which was good, as we identified that set-pieces would be important. We were pleased with the way the players battled.
“With the opposition being our rivals, we have faced them a lot, and we know they like trying to start on the front foot. They tried to put us under pressure, but our boys weren’t flustered. The first half was a bit scrappy, and there were lots of changes in possession, but we were composed and grew in confidence. I think the players were clear about how they had to adapt their games to the situation.
“It was great for Harrison King, after five months out to step in as we try to help him get back to full fitness. While Louie Cayless has looked more and more settled every time he plays. I thought Liam Oakes showed intelligence when he was brought on, and Kieran Wilson got a well-deserved goal at the back post.
“The boys are growing in confidence. They have never had a regular lineup, so there were personnel changes once again. But despite a different opponent, posing different problems, this was a game we had to stay as a collective, and exploit the opposition at the right time.
“We’ve had a good couple of weeks, and the players are getting the rewards in terms of points now. I have been really encouraged by everything, and the players are reaping the rewards for their hard work and persistence. We are on the right track, but we have to keep focused, and look to continue to build and evolve, and push to be better every single day.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Dylan Shanahan, Louie Cayless, Liam Cartwright, Harrison King, Tom Dean, Pedro Borges, Giulio Marroni, Jake Richards, Callum Graham, Kye Cooper, Theo Cutler
Subs: Tobias Alsop, Liam Oakes, Aidan Bown, Santino Ohanaka, Kieran Wilson