Feature interview: Simon Hayward on Exeter City's academy

Simon: "Our club, as far as I can see, needs the young players out of the academy to be the lifeblood of Exeter City."

It must be exciting times to be coaching or playing in Exeter City's academy. The under-16s have already reached two cup finals and won their league this season, while the under-18s got through to the third round of the FA Youth Cup and finished top of their South West Youth Alliance division. 

It bodes well for the future of the first team as the club’s academy already has a reputation for producing top players, with the likes of Middlesbrough captain George Friend, Bolton Wanderers defender Dean Moxey and Swansea City midfielder Matt Grimes all having come through the youth setup at St James Park. Added to that there are a healthy number of players currently in the first team who have graduated from Exeter City’s Academy, with Ollie Watkins, Christy Pym, Jordan Moore-Taylor and Ethan Ampadu grabbing a lot of the headlines this season. Exeter City's matchday programme THE GRECIAN caught up with academy manager Simon Hayward to chat to him about how the youth teams are performing this season and what it means to him to work at a club where young players are given a chance to shine in a first team environment.

THE GRECIAN: The under-16s have had a very successful season so far, reaching the final of the South West midweek floodlit cup and winning their league to get through to National Football League final. How talented do you feel that group is?

Simon Hayward

SIMON: It is talented, but I think we’re always trying to put things into context. They are a good group, but whenever we talk in those terms we’re really looking at strength in depth. Jordan Moore-Taylor’s age group was a strong group for example. I think we took nine or 10 scholars out of that group and they made an under-18s Football League Cup final. Five or six lads were offered professional contracts and then we had Jordan (Moore-Taylor), Jamie Reid, on loan at Torquay, and Jake Gosling, who has been at Bristol Rovers and Newport, that look like they have got careers as pros. Which is really what we are aiming to achieve. When you’ve got a group like Matt Grimes’ group, they were lacking strength in depth and we only offered three scholars. However, within that group, you had Christy Pym and Matt. So, even if you have a group that lacks strength in depth, you can still get some very, very big success stories out of it. 

THE GRECIAN: Following the final, which is due to be played at Derby County’s training ground on February 12 against Tranmere Rovers, what has the rest of the season got in store for the under-16s?

SIMON: I think our eyes are always on individual players because if the under-16s win this Football League title or the under-18s do well and win their league, all of that will count for very little if we don’t end up getting players in the first team. So, as much as it’s nice for the boys to perform well as a team, we always have to have an eye on individuals. What happens in the second half of the year is it just becomes even more focused on the individual than it was before. We are very much performance over results and individuals over team because, no matter how good a group they are, we are not going to get all 11 of them a professional contract. We will have to make decisions on which players get offered scholarships from the under-16s. A couple of months after that with the under-18s we will see who is offered a pro-contract. In the second half of the season we really look to push and stretch individual players. We get more 16s playing in the 18s and hopefully more 18s playing in the reserves. 

THE GRECIAN: The under-18s won their league recently and they also had a good run in the FA Youth Cup. How pleased have you been with their season so far?

SIMON: I have been pleased. I think the group were disappointed to go out of the youth cup so early against Wigan. The third round is certainly nothing to sniff at, but we would like to think that we are capable of progressing a little bit further. I thought we were the better side and deserved to edge that game but that is the way football goes. Week in, week out the under-18s have done very well in the league. We started on a good run, had a little bit of a dip in form and then finished the season quite strongly and they have ended up seven points clear at the top of the table. The best part of that is that the under-18s are a very young side. I think we’ve only got six second-year scholars. Normally you do quite well when you have got large numbers of older players because, even in under-18s football, that extra year is quite an advantage. It’s another year of growth and maturation. Bigger, quicker, stronger and more experienced. So, we have got an awful lot of first years, and some under-16s, that have had some good playing time this year. And that will only bode well for next season.

THE GRECIAN: With some of the first year scholars in the under-18s, do they have another year to try and earn that pro contract?

SIMON: Predominately it’s the second years that are coming up to big decisions, the first year scholars have got another year as it’s a two-year scholarship that they sign. However, I think at this club, more than most, Tis (Paul Tisdale) has proven that if you are good enough, you are old enough. Matt Jay made his debut early on in his second year as a scholar, Tom Nichols made his debut late in his second year and, this season, Ethan has made his debut while still being a schoolboy. So, the first year scholars, should really have that mentality to push and strive to improve every day because as soon as they prove on a consistent basis that they are ready then the door might open up.

THE GRECIAN: Were you pleased with the character the under-18s showed to bounce back from the disappointment of losing in the FA Youth Cup third round to then go on and win their South West Alliance Youth League?

SIMON: Yes, I think they had some important games just before Christmas and one or two results didn’t quite go their way. The Wigan game being one of those. We also had some league games where we completely dominated possession and territory and created lots of chances but just got caught with the odd counter attack and the results didn’t go our way. However, as soon as it went from being in our own hands, to a couple of losses meaning it was out of our hands, the under-18s went on a four or five-game winning streak to end the season and won the league comfortably. It was very good character shown by that group. Similarly, with the under-16s, they were unbeaten all season and reached the South West regional final and lost for the first time. However, six days later, they had to go out in a national semi-final and they showed great character to win that game from a goal down. It was a good response.

THE GRECIAN: You must be quite pleased with the constant stream of players that are coming through the academy and breaking into the first team? 

Christy Pym

SIMON: Yes, I think I have said it before, but if you could have a team here that had George Friend, Dean Moxey, Dan Seaborne, Sean Goss, Matt Grimes, Tom Nichols, Liam Sercombe, Scot Bennett in it, along with the likes of Christy (Pym), Jordan Moore-Taylor, Ollie Watkins and others that are around the first team now, we would have a side that could probably compete and do well in League One, if not higher. 

THE GRECIAN: How important is it to have a manager who is willing to look a few years down the line and give youngsters a chance so that they develop into better footballers in a first-team environment?

SIMON: It is massively important and the model that we have got is in danger a little bit as Tis has been braver than any manager in the country in the way he puts young players into the team. Our club, as far as I can see, needs the young players out of the academy to be the lifeblood of Exeter City. Not just to play in the first team, but to hopefully sell and then use that money to sustain and improve the club in the short, medium and long term. The work that Tis has done needs to be supported and recognised by fans, even when results on the pitch are not going well, because if you don’t have a manager who is willing to play young players; if you have a manager who is not willing to think beyond three points on Saturday, then there is a danger that the whole model falls apart. You can look at it with Ollie (Watkins), Ethan (Ampadu), Christy (Pym) and Jordan (Moore-Taylor), doing so well already in a first team environment. If one or two of those players get sold in the next six to 12 months, then the money from that might sustain us for two or three years after that.

However, what is going on today could mean that after two or three years the pipeline stops. If we have a different manager who doesn’t play young players, then our young players don’t become valuable and we don’t sell them and then there is less money at the club. If there is less money at the club, then best first team players leave and what happens then? 

Therefore, I think it is important that supporters and the members of the trust, who are part of the ownership group of the club, understand that because we don’t have a millionaire owner there is a huge, huge value on a first team manager who is not only capable of getting back-to-back promotions, as Tis did, and taking us on a 10-game unbeaten run, as he has done recently, but also at the same time thinking about the long-term future of the club by playing young players. Most managers, just think Saturday to Saturday. There are plenty of academies up and down the country who do good work but whether it is better work than we do, nobody knows. That is because if you do a load of good work and the manager at the top doesn’t want to play kids, then it is just wasted work. Any success our academy has is a by-product of the fact that our academy and first team work together. 

THE GRECIAN: I wondered if you watched Football Focus recently when George Friend spoke glowingly about his time at Exeter City. How pleasing was that to hear?

Eamonn Dolan

SIMON: I didn’t see it. George came through under Eamonn Dolan and before my time, so if he has spoken positively about his time here, it just speaks volumes to what a good job Eamonn did. I am very proud to have been able to pick up the foundations that he, and other people like Mike Radford, Mel Gwinnett and Julian Tagg, laid. Hopefully, I do a good enough job to honour that legacy. There is certainly a bit of weight on your shoulders when someone like that does such a good job here. It gives you a good foundation and you feel like you have got to do something decent otherwise you are letting people down. What I would say is that it is fantastic to see an academy graduate from here captaining a Premier League team. I think it speaks volumes about the type of person we produce – not just the quality of the player. The fact that we have got George as the captain of a Premier League team, along with Matt Grimes, having captained England under-20s and Ethan (Ampadu) captaining his Wales teams, shows we are not just trying to produce good players, but we are also trying to produce very decent, well-rounded, young men.