Following Exeter City under-18's recent eliminations in the FA Youth Cup and Youth Alliance Cup, Head Coach Chad Gribble took time to reflect on his side’s two enthralling runs in the competitions.
The Grecians’ youth side reached round four of the FA Youth Cup after eliminating Plymouth Argyle, Cheltenham Town, and AFC Bournemouth. However, a painful defeat to Leicester City last month ended the hopes that the club could reach the fifth round for the first time.
Meanwhile, in the Youth Alliance Cup, City’s youngsters beat Forest Green Rovers and Yeovil Town on their way to the semi-finals of the southern section of the Youth Alliance Cup, where they were knocked out by Gillingham courtesy of a heartbreaking penalty shoot-out.
But, rather than rue the disappointment of the two losses, Gribble, on his review, was rather upbeat about what both cup runs had done for his team and their development.
“These experiences are only going to benefit the players,” said Gribble, before adding, “There is nothing better than exposure. One of two members of our current Under-18s team featured in the cup games last year, and two seasons ago, when we played Wigan Athletic in the Youth Alliance Cup final, Nelson Iseguan played, and Jack Veale and Alex Moyse were unused substitutes. When young players get stretched and are put in situations a little out of their depth, they can often surprise you. That is something we’ve always tried to do, and football can have a way of presenting opportunities to you, so when you put that together with the pressures that come with these types of matches, these experiences will certainly help the players going forward.
“The FA Youth Cup is the biggest competition the Under-18s can play in. It has a real history and tradition, and since I have taken charge of the youth team, that has certainly continued and has now become something that our players look forward to. Playing at a stadium, under floodlights, adds that bit of pressure, and has a first-team feel about it. That ‘realism’ can bring things out in players, and sometimes you get to see a different side to them. The Youth Alliance Cup provided us with an extra game as we progressed. You end up playing against different sides, and this season we got the chance to play Gillingham, who we haven’t played for four years or so, and not while I’ve been the Under-18s coach. When you play unfamiliar opposition they may play football in a different kind of way, but that challenge, or randomness, that we face is a good test for our players.
“The players enjoy the occasion of the cup ties and shouldn’t go into those matches with any fear. It gives them a chance to show off the work they do on a daily basis because there is a lot of effort that goes on behind the scenes. Playing in front of people, or this season playing in front of a live stream, is something the players don’t experience in their league matches on a Saturday morning, and they end up seeing those matches as just an extension of their Academy journey. Our group see the cup matches as an exciting opportunity. They know they aren’t the finished article, but they’ve really enjoyed giving the cups a good go.
“We always look to make our match preparations about us. The players know that there are points up for grabs, and they always talk about assessing opponents ahead of games, but in our preparations, we look at how our principles of play fit in with what the opposition brings to the table. In some instances that has worked for us, but we’ve also had to solve some problems out on the pitch. What the Leicester and Gillingham matches provided us with was a lack of individual knowledge. When you play Bournemouth, Cheltenham, Plymouth and Yeovil three or four times a season you get to know your opponent. So, for those matches against Leicester and Gillingham, our individual tactics were a little bit different, and it was a bit more like a cat and mouse situation for the players, and they had to work out how to impose themselves on the game. It is important for the players to have those kinds of challenges. We were craving for some sort of test in the FA Youth Cup, and I’m really pleased we managed to get that.
“Reflecting on it all, in the FA Youth Cup, the staff are certainly proud of how far the players got. In the first game against Plymouth, it was a bit nervy from both teams, and we knew a lot about one another. It was a bit frantic and different to a normal league match, but it showed that players do get nervous before big games. But the cup run we went on showed a real winning mentality in the group. To go into extra-time, particularly in the tie against Cheltenham, showed a never-say-die attitude. Cheltenham scored a late equaliser against us and the momentum was with them. Maybe you would have expected them to go on and dominate the early period of extra-time, but we dusted ourselves down quickly, and, in front of people watching on, we found a way to win. It wasn’t a complete performance by any means, but we showed character and endeavour, and we won because we out-competed, and out-worked them. Then, to go punch-for-punch and match a Premier League club and Category One Academy in the shape of Leicester City was extremely pleasing. After watching it back, I noticed that we had one or two good chances that we could have done a little bit better with. There were some close moments but I certainly felt the players’ frustration and disappointment in the changing room after.
“The Youth Alliance Cup match against Gillingham came at a nice time for us. We took some confidence and belief from our match against Leicester into that semi-final, and it was a tough encounter. You could see the players were under pressure, but that pressure came from themselves, because they wanted to replicate teams from previous years who had got to the final. The players brought the game to life with their ambition, and to be quite honest, I liked one side of our game, but we didn’t do enough to win it. We failed to take care of the ball with some of our play, and that is a good example of the inconsistency these young players have which I have talked about previously. To lose on penalties is heartbreaking, and shoot-outs don’t always produce the deserved winner. This game was very even, but penalties are a real lottery. Gillingham went on to win the southern final, so it shows that we were knocked out by a good team.”