Exeter City’s under-16s coach, Chad Gribble, believes the 2017/2018 season has been successful for his young side as his squad have reached the halfway stage of the campaign.
“We’ve been delighted with some of the results,” admitted Gribble. “We are certainly pleased with a second or third-place finish in the competitive games programme. At the start of the season, with such a young group, we didn’t expect to finish as high as we have.”
The success so far this year has been a product of a hard-working season from the players, with their journey starting all the way back in August. After a successful pre-season, Gribble’s men lost their opening match 4-2 to AFC Bournemouth but the young Grecians bounced back, mounting an unbeaten run of five matches afterwards.
“In training, the players hit the ground running from day one,” said Gribble. “The squad size added a healthy competition for places. Every week we had players fighting to keep the shirt, or to earn it back.
"We have a determined group, and when players are hungry it can certainly help. We came into the season wanting to prove people wrong. We were amongst the youngest squads in the league because of the amount of under-15s in our group, but we always thought that they were talented enough to compete at this level, and they managed to do that.”
The end of September saw City’s youths suffer back-to-back defeats, before they put together another string of impressive performances and results. With midweek Floodlit Cup matches starting to be played in between Saturday’s fixtures, Gribble’s squad put together a sequence of six wins from nine matches.
“That second streak of ours saw us play some of our best football,” he said. “It came off the back of a lot of games. In my opinion, I think matches played so close to one another can help create momentum, and give you a chance to get a real run going. That stretch helped us build confidence, and we managed to get into a rhythm. During that period, we were able to make a lot of progress in our matches. We were learning from ‘real’ situations, and not just training scenarios, and the players certainly made progress from that.”
However, Exeter City under-16s most testing times came after, when they suffered four consecutive defeats between November 18 and December 2.
“Lessons can be taken from every match, regardless if you win, lose or draw, but it was during that period when we looked tired,” said Gribble. “We have not played a game where we haven’t needed to be at our maximum, and these games may have been a product of playing so many matches. Everyone is capable of beating everyone this season so we’ve had to perform to 100 per cent every week. Thankfully the players came back and responded well with a win against Plymouth Argyle in our final match before Christmas.”
Now, the winter break allows time for the players to recover from what has been a tough first half of the season. The squad will spend the festive season with their families before they regroup in the new year, and continue from where they left off.
However, for the coaches, it gives them an opportunity to also reflect on the past five months. Gribble believes this season has already created some good memories and experiences for the players, and is hoping that it can continue for the rest of the season.
“The biggest credit I can give the players is complimenting them on how quickly they learnt to play Saturday football,” he said. “It is completely different to what they had previously experienced at the academy, and playing on a Sunday, but they have managed to step in, picked up key aspects quickly, and gone straight into competitive football.
“We’ve had some real highlights so far. Our 3-1 win a Bristol Rovers was a match that springs to mind. It was a tough day on a boggy pitch, and I was pleased with how we played that day despite the conditions. Our match against Swindon Town at home was also a memorable one. Off the back of a 4-2 defeat on the opening day of the season, there was a good reaction from the boys, and it was nice to get the first three points on the board.
“The cup nights have been brilliant. In our matches with Plymouth, we’ve showed great character because we have come from behind in them, whilst in the Bournemouth match we’ve managed to get a last minute winner which was also great.
“I think the matches have shown the real character of the players. They don’t know when they’ve been beaten, and it shows that they are a determined bunch. To say we have overachieved would be unfair, because we have got some real quality in the team. The team have certainly proved people wrong."
Gribble ran out of compliments for his whole squad, who have managed to exceed pre-season expectations. However, he paid tribute to individuals that have certainly caught the eye so far this year.
“Credit has to go to Lewis Wilson. Including pre-season, he’s managed to score 21 goals already and has displayed a real quality in front of goal. Max Clarke and Callum Brake have done well for us despite being Under-15s. They have played in every minute for us, and they showed a mature understanding of what is required from them. Also, Jack Arthur, who is also an Under-15 and our goalkeeper, has shown good maturity in goal, and a commanding presence which is nice to see.”
With the competitive games programme completed, and the team unfortunately unable to progress in the under-16s Floodlit Cup, attentions now turn to the second half of the season for Gribble and his players. The under-15s remain in their version of the Floodlit Cup, whilst the under-16s’ fixtures mirror the under-18s age group, which may see Exeter come up against some different opponents.