Third place finish in the Merit League One standings
With Exeter City's under-18s completing their competitive season, youth coach Dan Green reflected on what was another successful season for the young Grecians, identifying many highlights during a positive 2016/2017 campaign in his season review.
Following the Devon outfit winning the Youth Alliance South West division during the first half of the season, City’s youngsters finished a commendable third position in the Merit League One standings in what was a relatively decent campaign for the Exeter scholars.
The season ended with the Grecians’ academy announcing the positive news that five of their under-18s had earned themselves a professional contract with the club, whilst two more of the scholars were able to pursue careers elsewhere.
Archie Collins, Alex Hartridge, Max Smallcombe, Ben Seymour and Lewis Williams all agreed professional deals at St James Park, whilst Cameron Hargreaves was able to earn a contract at Bristol Rovers and Max Gillard will continue his football education at Hartpury University.
However, for all of the success, Exeter’s under-18s enjoyed throughout the year, the fruitful season began back in July, when Green took control of the club’s youth team following the departure of Lee Skyrme. The coach quickly embraced the role, and he swiftly formed a quality working relationship with his players that led to the side earning praise through some eye-catching performances and some impressive results.
The Youth Alliance regional title was eventually secured back in January, and an upbeat Green admitted his delight going into the final six months of the season.
“I was definitely pleased with the first half of the season," said Dan. "The first years adapted to being a scholar well, but I still wanted more from some of the performances that we had put in. Despite that though I was extremely pleased with our top-of-the-table finish.”
The Devon club had aspirations of performing well when the clubs from the top halves of both of the Youth Alliance southern sections were brought together to form a super league. Each side would play each other once in what was a short sprint to another trophy at the end of the season.
The Grecians started their Merit League campaign in February, and it began with a difficult trip to Gillingham. This included a lengthy journey and overnight stay taking the players to new experiences as they had to deal with the tricky start the fixture computer handed to them. A credible 1-1 draw in Kent courtesy of a Jack Sparkes strike was then followed up with a 2-2 draw away to Swindon, with Exeter happy two of their matches away from home were over.
A 2-1 win over Cambridge United, as well as a 3-1 against Stevenage, meant Green’s men were unbeaten after four games and looking like mounting a serious title challenge in a league that possessed the eleven best under-18s sides in the southern half of the country.
However back-to-back high-scoring defeats in their next two games damaged their championship surge, with Luton Town and Southend United securing 3-0 and 4-3 victories respectively.
The Grecians responded to those consecutive losses in fine style picking up seven points from a possible nine. After beating Leyton Orient 2-1, City held Bristol Rovers to a 1-1 draw. They then travelled south for a Devon derby at Home Park where they won 3-0 in convincing style with goals coming from Brandon Parsons, Josh Key and Archie Collins.
A 4-3 defeat in their final match to league leaders Newport County meant the young Grecians had to await their final position in the standings with teams still playing their respective games in hand. With the results favouring the Westcountry side, it meant that they had cemented a third place finish with a haul of 15 points.
Green admitted there were plenty of high and low points during the course of the Merit League campaign.
“Against Cambridge we were excellent, and I thought the Plymouth match was really good," he said. "However the Gillingham trip was a tester with the long journey and tight pitch, and in the final match, although Newport deserve a lot of credit, that gave us a great indicator or where the players were at the time, and where they wanted to be.”
“In all honesty, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the last six months. I was really pleased with the number of players we were able to send out on loan, and the number of first-year scholars and under-16s players we were able to use in our preparations for next year.
“But in terms of performance within the league, I wanted more from the guys. Some of the matches we almost got that, but in some of the games, we walked away with some good lessons to learn. We’ve got to perform more consistently, but ultimately the biggest lesson to come out of the matches is if we aren’t playing at our best, we would be foolish to think we will come out of the contest with something.
“The reasons we sent some of the second years out on loan was for them to gain some experience in men’s football, whilst the first years and under-16s could get more game time in under-18s football, which in turn would allow them more chances to learn. There were some good learning points from the games they played in and we are very hopeful they will learn from those experiences and I’m excited to be working with them all on a full-time basis next season.
“I think on paper we have lots of good players coming through, and the biggest thing to do now is to put the work in on a daily basis and start picking up the right habits that will benefit us in the long run. That is what will provide us with the biggest picture in terms of where we are at and where we can potentially go. There is a lot of potential in this group, they just need to put the work rate in to achieve success.”
Whilst next season promises to be another successful story for the Exeter academy, Green concluded his review by paying tribute to the players who were able to earn professional deals as they continue their footballing journey’s beyond under-18s football.
“A well done goes to the six guys earning professional contracts, and credit to Max Gillard for looking to progress through the university. It’s the first step in the door, but we shall see if can they make a career in the game after being given this opportunity. The guys are a credit to Simon and the academy. It’s very easy to look back and say that this achievement is all down to this last year, but their professional deals are a reward for 10 years of hard work from the players, coaches and academy manager, Simon Hayward.”