Academy column: Simon Hayward

The Under-18s had a handful of days off over Christmas but are back in training ahead of the second half of their season which begins in February, and in the meantime we’re working hard to secure some high-profile friendlies for a mini ‘pre-season’ over the next few weeks.
We aren’t precious about results or league tables while players are in a development phase, but on this occasion we hope that we can finish in the right position to enter the higher merit league and face some of the top clubs from the South East division in the latter half of the season.  We have completed our schedule for the first half of the season, but the table won’t be finalised until the rest of the division catch up on their postponed games.
All in all, our YTS players will be playing more competitive and friendly fixtures than they would have done in previous years.  Including league and cup games, friendly matches and reserve team games, our youngsters have played an average of around 25 appearances each already this season, which is much more attuned to the demands which first-team football will require of them.
Games are, of course, a huge part of the learning curve of a footballer – lots of hard work takes place on the training field, where we get messages across to player, but the game scenario is the test at the end of it to see whether they can apply those lessons in practice against live opposition who are motivated and have their own strategies to win.
We are also considering the possibility of getting one or two of the Under-18s out on loan to local non-League clubs – this isn’t something that we have done historically, but we are always investigating new avenues to help players to develop quicker and maximise their potential.  Playing with and against adult footballers in an environment where three points matter more could certainly help the development of some of our youngsters, if the circumstances are right.
Before Christmas, we also hosted our annual social event at St James Park – it is always a really nice occasion and allows the coaching staff, parents, and players from the under-9 to under-16 age group to spend some time together in a different environment.  We had a few pool and skittles competitions and everyone had a really enjoyable evening before they went on their two-week break over the festive period.
And all of those young players now have a role-model close to home – hopefully the rise of Matt Grimes has paved the way to show our young players that there is a pathway not just to our first team, but also into international football and directly into the Premier League. 

When I first saw Matt playing as an under-10 for West Exe and invited him for a trial with Exeter it was not evident that he would play in the Premier League; I’m not sure it ever is evident at that age, but we have always encouraged our Academy players to aspire to Premier League, Champions League and International football and as a group of staff that is where we set our sights for the Academy players – everyone involved in the Academy should be really proud at helping him to develop as a player and a person during his formative years and giving him the opportunities which he has taken whole-heartedly, culminating in his move to Swansea.  It is living proof to our young lads of what can be achieved here with the right blend of hard work and a good attitude.
It’s a sign of the kind of quality that we are producing and it is exciting to think that our programme has continued to improve year on year.  They say that youth development is a 10-year process and now that I am into my 11th season looking after the Academy I think we are starting to see the fruits of the labour over the last decade.  Without taking anything away from what Matt has achieved, we have players throughout the age-groups who are ahead of where Matt was in his development at that age.  They have a long way to go and many obstacles to overcome, but if they can follow a similar path then we’ll have some similar stories in the coming years.
Often the first is the hardest – and once one has laid the path, others can follow.  That isn’t to say that we’ll rest on our laurels or expect things to come easily now – if anything, it gives us the incentive to try even harder and take fullest advantage of the situation.
Simon Hayward is Academy Manager at Exeter City Football Club. This column was first printed in The Grecian, our matchday programme, for our home fixture against Northampton Town on Saturday 10th January 2015.