Exeter City under-16s have capped off a wonderful couple of months by securing the Floodlit Cup after a 3-0 victory over Bristol Rovers last week.
After securing a 100 per cent record in matches against Plymouth Argyle and Yeovil Town in the competition’s group stage, the young Grecians then met the Pirates in the final of the tournament on Wednesday, December 12.
Callum Brake netted the opening goal of the game, before Alfie Pond’s header doubled Exeter’s lead before half-time.
Alex Moyse saw a penalty saved in the second period, however he tucked the rebound home to give the Devon club’s academy their first piece of silverware of the season.
However, City’s journey to that final was a process of hard work and determination, which all began in July when they started the season.
On paper, it has been a tough year for the under-16s age group, but particular circumstances have allowed certain younger players to take their chance and put in some really positive performances.
Every season, only eight of the under-16s’ EFL games programme fixtures are classed as ‘competitive’, where the result of the game will go towards a points total in a league system.
With the club’s under-18s squad so small this season, the Saturday matches have seen many of the 16-year-old players feature for the older team, resulting in many under-14s and under-15s stepping up to fill their boots in the under-16s.
Regardless of the academy fielding a fairly young under-16s side on most weekends, they performed admirably, and they finished a credible fourth amongst some highly competitive teams.
Despite the Saturday under-16s line-up rather depleted, its normal roster was restored in the Floodlit Cup, played during the week.
With more experience in the team, the Grecians played outstandingly well in the competition, recording two 2-1 victories over rivals Plymouth Argyle, as well as defeating Yeovil Town 5-1 and 3-1 to top the standings and secure a spot in the final to face the winner of the northern south west group.
With Rovers topping their respective group, the two clubs met at Bristol Manor Farm.
Eighty minutes and three goals later, City were crowned Cup champions, with their clinical nature and mature game management, all learnt from their exposure at the football at a higher level, helping them when they needed it here.
Exeter City Academy operations manager, Arran Pugh, described how the academy has benefitted from the under-16s’ journey so far this season.
“It has been a challenging year,” he said. “In spite of the number of under-16s playing for the under-18s this season, we’ve seen some encouraging performances on Saturday’s from the under-16s team, and some great development. With the amount of under-14s, under-15s, and under-16s really making their mark, it has been really positive for us.
“The Floodlit Cup fixtures allowed us to field what was more of an under-16s side, and despite having eight of them playing in that final, we still had a number of under-14s and under-15s involved too which was really pleasing.
“Traditionally we’ve tried to provide opportunities to those that deserve the chance, and this year perhaps we have done that more than ever, due to there being a smaller under-18s group this season. You could say we went into the season unsure exactly how this was all going to play out, but these young players have the correct attitude and ability to succeed, and it’s fair to say we’ve been pleasantly surprised.
“We have faced challenges along the way. There have been things that the younger players may not have faced before, but I feel the reason it has proved to be a successful season so far is down to the players consistently demonstrating the academy ‘must-haves’ in their game. Displaying these essential qualities has allowed the boys to adapt their game and help with the challenges that they have faced.”
“The under-18 players have been great with their support and encouragement towards the under-16s boys coming through. They have done a good job of embracing the younger lads and helping them settle into the team, and together they have shown a real team effort.”
Of course, the Floodlit Cup doesn’t signal the end of the under-16s season for the players, with their goals and attention now averting to their futures and long-term aspirations.
For the senior under-16s players, scholarship decisions are not too far away, so they will be doing their best to work hard for those youth contracts, whilst also trying to earn more appearances in the under-18s set-up.
For the under-14s and under-15s, they have their own respective Floodlit Cup competition to deal with, hoping they can add to the academy’s silverware collection this season, whilst also looking to gain more experience with the under-16s with the remaining fixtures they have left.
Pugh highlighted how now is an important time for most of the academy players.
“It has got to that stage of the season where the under-16s have their scholarship decisions on the horizon. It is part of the reason why the Floodlit Cup final is played in December as Christmas becomes an important time for the under-16s players. The Floodlit Cup final is arguably the biggest thing they will be involved in this season, and with their competitive games programme ending, their next job will be to gain some more opportunities with the under-18s and prepare themselves for next season.
“It means that if this begins to happen at the start of 2019, we will see more opportunities for the under-15s and under-14s with the under-16s age group.
“It is what we believe in here. Pushing players and giving opportunities to those younger players is something we’ve often done. I think we saw the benefits of that in the Floodlit Cup final. It was a tense start, and it took a while for us to settle, but once we did, we showed some grit in our performance, particularly in the second half. The exposure to football at a higher level helped the boys as they showed a kind of maturity in the second period that helped us see the game through and record the victory.”