In a season full of restrictions, confusion and chaos, Chad Gribble and his under-18s side have reached the halfway point of their 2020/21 league campaign, and enter a period of rest and recovery before they get going again on January 9th.
In a time of reflection, Gribble took a moment to look back at what his team had achieved so far, and admitted how proud and pleased he was with his current set of players, but acknowledged there was one particular accomplishment that had stood out above all others from this season, and it came courtesy of ECFC manager Matt Taylor.
“The real highlight for us so far has been Nelson Iseguan making his first-team debut. We have also seen Jack Veale and Alfie Pond named as unused substitutes in the Papa John’s Trophy, while Harry Lee and Sonny Cox have also been named on the bench for some first-team games.
“Our young players might not always make first-team appearances, but I’m always confident they will have the opportunities to train with the first-team and learn with them because Matt [Taylor] has already given chances to the players that deserve to be there. If you look at the current squad, there are many players in there that were under-18s players not too long ago, and, as a football club, we are extremely proud of that. Everyone understands there might be a risk when you include the younger players, but they have repaid the trust put into them to this point. Ultimately, we aim to provide the manager with as many players to pick from as possible.”
While Gribble intends to help develop the next success story to come out of the ECFC Academy, his job was made more challenging at the start of the season following the national lockdown and the government's restrictions that were put in place for everyone’s safety. Gribble explained how pre-season provided different challenges to what he had experienced before.
“It seemed like we had a long pre-season. When we came back we had to begin with non-contact training, but we made it work. We got a lot of good work done, and the individuals had a lot of attention to develop their games. It certainly taught us something as staff, and something we may end up using again in the future.
“We always want our pre-season friendlies to provide us with as much variety as possible. We played some local sides who were just starting out, and then some men’s teams who gave us a physical challenge. Those matches were less structured and allowed the players to problem solve and find a way to win. We ended our pre-season fixtures by testing ourselves against Swansea City, who are a Category 2 Academy, so thankfully we got that variety we were looking for.”
Following the productive exhibitions, City’s U18s began the Youth Alliance South West division in mid-September with a home match against Yeovil Town. A win against the Glovers, backed up with a Devon Derby victory over Plymouth Argyle saw the Grecians begin their competitive games in good form, and despite losing to Bristol Rovers soon after, Exeter’s youngsters accumulated nine points from their opening four games with another victory. Gribble explained that the first run of matches provided some real learning opportunities for his players.
“We played reasonably well against Yeovil, but, against Plymouth, we found a way to win. Credit has to go to our players for grinding out that victory. Plymouth played well that day and we were challenged differently, but the game taught the boys that there are different ways to get a result.”
Consecutive defeats to Portsmouth and Oxford United at the start of October soon followed, putting the brakes on the strong start Exeter’s youngsters had made. Gribble, however, looked at the bigger picture and believed those losses actually benefitted the squad.
“No one likes losing, but you can learn a lot from them. As a group, we improved because of them, but lots of individuals learned more about their jobs and roles in the side, and they have since not made the same mistakes that cost us in those matches.
“When we came into the season it was a bit of an unknown knowing where everyone was in terms of fitness levels. The 2nd-years had just missed three or four months of competitive under-18s football because of the lockdown, while the new crop of players can always take a bit of time adjusting to the under-18s level. The restrictions changed the way we worked and everyone did it differently. We never knew what we were coming up against as there was no comparison to anything, so the only thing we could do was focus on ourselves.”
Two wins against Newport County and Swindon Town came next, before City ended their winter period with six points from their final five matches, with just one solitary defeat coming from that sequence. With 21 points in total, it meant that the Grecians ended 2020 in fourth place in the league standings with plenty of football still to be played. Gribble admitted he was pleased where his team found themselves following their final game just before Christmas.
“I have to credit the players as the team were still delivering performances in the league despite the distractions of the FA Youth Cup, where the matches can sometimes feel like they have greater importance to the players. We have tried to stress to the squad that the most important game to them is the next one, regardless of what competition it is in. I felt we did enough to beat Plymouth, but we didn’t play well in the Forest Green Rovers match and that was because we were suffering from the hangover of the FA Youth Cup game a few days before. The final match against Portsmouth we weren’t at our best, but from a results point of view, we’ve managed to keep picking up points despite the cup run, which doesn't happen often. I’m pleased with the players’ fitness levels, particularly when they have been playing twice in a week, and that two of our FA Youth Cup ties have gone into extra-time. As a professional, you can end up playing two games in a week regularly, so you have to make yourself as robust as possible to deliver a performance out on the pitch, and I thought the players showed those kinds of traits in their performances during November and December.
“I’m pleased with the little bit of work we have done between Christmas and New Year, but now the players are on a break so we can let the boys who live further away have some family time, and the local lads can get a bit of time with their family and rest up. We started the season much later, but the amount of work the players and staff have put in has been quite full-on, and they deserve the rest they get before we are back in. The demand will be that they come back focused, refreshed and ready to go again. We come back on January 4th so we can get a full weeks training in before we are scheduled to play Cheltenham Town on January 9th. We are hopeful that we can continue as planned despite the new government measures but all we can do is keep focusing on ourselves."
With the City team ending the first half of the season in a promising position, Gribble will look to continue helping his players develop from January onwards. In a variety of ways, the head coach will give his players the best possible chance of achieving their potential, and he outlined his aims and ambitions for his players in the next six months.
“We will look to provide opportunities for our young players. The benefit of our cup runs is that it gives us an extra game to learn and develop. We have a good competitive squad at the moment, with a good under-16s side who have enjoyed a decent couple of months behind them. The busy schedule we have means there will be a lot of opportunities for a lot of players. The under-16s and 1st-year scholars were really starting to develop after adapting to the full-time training regime, and so for the first two weeks back, a real squad effort will be needed. They will all compete for chances, but once they get them they will have to showcase themselves. The more games we play, equals more chances to develop.
“The individual development is always the most important, but our players are all in different places. We want to provide our 2nd-years with as much opportunity to develop as possible to help them try and earn professional contracts at the end of the season. That may mean they are loaned out to local men’s teams just like Harry Ford is currently. But that is reliant on non-league football continuing. There are several others who we want to stretch, which in turn will open up opportunities for our 1st-years, and challenge the under-16s coming through. Our squad in the second half of this season might not be as experienced, but I can assure everyone that they will be as competitive, as they are all young and hungry players who are ready for the step up now. Our goal is to reach the top Merit League, so we can test ourselves against the stronger teams from the south-east, but whatever division we end up playing in, that will be a representation of where we finish. Ultimately, we just want to try and put individuals in the best circumstances that will aid their development.”