Saints’ Development Squad were eliminated from the U21 Premier League Cup after suffering a 2-0 defeat to Exeter City.
Two second-half strikes courtesy of Jimmy Keohane and Jake Gosling ensured Southampton exited in the third round of the competition – which is in its inaugural year.
Under-21s coach Martin Hunter was disappointed with the youngsters’ display at St James Park and believes they can perform to a much higher level.
Amidst a rather quiet beginning to the encounter, both sides had one brief glimpse of goal apiece inside the opening ten minutes.
Omar Rowe’s low cross through the six-yard box was palmed away by Christy Pym as the lurking Sam Gallagher was ready to tap home before Keohane’s hopeful effort from 25 yards was expertly blocked by Jordan Turnbull.
Jake Sinclair was just as ambitious in his attempts to score as Keohane when he charged into the area but blazed over the crossbar from an acute angle shortly after the quarter-hour mark.
Five minutes later, a minority of the supporters thought the hosts had broken into the lead when Tom Nichols had the ball in the net. The ball was flicked onto the youngster – who was blatantly offside – allowing him to fire in before seeing his effort correctly ruled out.
Moments before the half-hour mark, it appeared that the Grecians were destined to break the deadlock until a fine intervention from Cody Cropper prevented the home side. David Wheeler met Jordan Moore-Taylor’s curling cross with a well-executed glancing header that the ‘keeper stretched across to heroically palm away.
Desperation then crept in for Exeter, who tried two speculative efforts from 25 yards; one was a Keohane shot that saw him thwarted by Turnbull again before Gosling controlled Nichols’ cross before hitting a tame volley that Cropper smothered with ease.
Southampton created a much more inviting opportunity on the stroke of half-time through exquisite footwork courtesy of Omar Rowe. The winger took a pass in his stride and away from Jordan Tillson in the area before seeing his left-footed strike stopped by a last-ditch block.
HALF-TIME: EXETER CITY U21s 0-0 SOUTHAMPTON U21s
Five minutes after the restart, Rowe found fellow winger Sinclair and teed him up for a shot that unfortunately flew straight into the grateful arms of Pym.
That appeared to be a catalyst for Exeter’s resurgence in the match that saw them come within inches of netting first.
Jake Gosling unleashed a low shot from the left of the area that fizzed narrowly beyond the far post before Nichol’s cross on the hour mark deflected across the face of goal and just out of reach of the sliding Wheeler in the six-yard box.
Soon after, Wheeler was pivotal in ensuring the hosts broke the deadlock in impressive fashion.
Quick interplay around the box allowed the youngster to swiftly turn and lay the ball into the path of KEOHANE who calmly curled a shot from the edge of the area past Cropper and into the top corner.
Saints attempted to muster a positive response but were pegged back once again with just under ten minutes remaining in the clash when a penalty was awarded against them after Aaron Dawson was adjudged to have been dragged down in the box.
GOSLING stepped up and swept the spot-kick past the outstretched arm of Cropper and into the bottom-right corner to seal the hosts’ passage into the next round and eliminate Saints from the cup.
FULL-TIME: EXETER CITY U21s 2-0 SOUTHAMPTON U21s
After the game, Hunter was under no illusions about how the match went and conceded that Exeter were fully deserving of their victory.
The U21s coach told Saints Player: “They thoroughly deserved their win. Two-nil was not a reflection on a lucky win for them – they played well. We were poor. There’s no way of stating anything else.
“We created very few chances. I can’t remember in 90 minutes the ‘keeper making a save – he’s dealt with a couple of crosses. It was a game that we started slowly, we looked nervous and we didn’t do the things we’d been practicing all week.
“In terms of their one-versus-one duels, they lost. There were only two players in my opinion that equipped themselves at the level tonight. If you do that, then you are going to lose.”
Hunter was particularly frustrated at the side’s inability to replicate excellent training ground work on the pitch. The coach has revealed he’ll be looking for a sharper approach from the U21s in the near future so exciting potential can be fulfilled on the pitch in upcoming games.
“We practice every single day, you see the work that we do,” he continued. “The players understand what they’re doing now. We don’t want training players, we want players who can play in stadiums like this and better, and produce what’s needed.
When asked what the team needs to improve, Hunter replied: “Exactly what we do week-in, week-out in terms of passing the ball through the thirds of the pitch, pressing high and defending as a team.
“We’re not going to change that. We need to get back and work hard and above all else, smarter.”
Exeter City Under-21s: Pym, Butterfield (Wannell 46), Tillson, Moore-Taylor (c), Dawson, Keohane, Grimes, Gosling, Wheeler, Nichols (Chamberlain 80), Jay (Jagger Cane 64). Unused substitutes: Hamon, Reid.
Goals: Keohane (68), Gosling (81)
Booking: Wheeler (75)
Southampton Under-21s: Cropper, McCarthy, Stephens (c), Turnbull, Targett, Robinson (Gape 73), Reed, Flannigan (Seager 62), Sinclair, Rowe, Gallagher. Unused substitutes: Moore, Britt, Young.