Following the recent decision from the Football Association to allow the FA Youth Cup to recommence, Exeter City’s Academy will be keeping tabs on this week's third-round tie between Leicester City under-18s and Sheffield Wednesday under-18s.
The competition was temporarily suspended just after the New Year due to COVID-19 and government lockdown measures, however, the tournament has been given the green light to continue proceedings, meaning Chad Gribble’s under-18s will host the winner of Friday evening’s contest at the LCFC Training Ground in round four.
Before January’s postponement, City’s youth side put a tremendous run of form together in the competition, starting back in the autumn when the Grecians defeated rivals Plymouth Argyle at Home Park. Despite leading the Pilgrims twice in 90 minutes, Joe Wragg’s extra-time strike saw Gribble’s side triumph 3-2 and advance into round two.
Seven days later, City’s under-18s welcomed Cheltenham Town to St James Park. Following two Sonny Cox goals in normal time, an Ellis Johnson winner in the additional 30-minute period meant, for the second consecutive week, the Grecians progressed as 3-2 victors after extra-time.
In the third round, Exeter hosted a memorable cup tie against a talented AFC Bournemouth team. On a cold December evening, a collective team effort saw the Devonians defy the odds and beat the Cherries 3-1, delighting all of the supporters who had tuned in to the live stream and were watching the action from the comfort of their own homes.
City’s youngsters now have the chance to make history by reaching the fifth round of the competition for the first time. Following the cup’s fourth-round draw, which took place just before Christmas, Gribble admitted how excited he is to see his side test themselves against quality opposition.
"The players are really excited, and the staff are extremely pleased that the team have got the draw that they deserve. One club is in the Premier League, and the other is in the Championship, but they both have a fantastic history and decent academy set-ups. It will provide us with a great test, but a great opportunity also, and, for some of the players, this may end up being one of the biggest games they’ve experienced on their footballing journeys so far.
"Leicester and Sheffield Wednesday are two teams we have not faced before, but the under-23s have had recent matches with Leicester's under-23s. We know that either one will provide a tough game. They both have good quality and technical players, but in similar circumstances to the Bournemouth match, there isn’t any pressure on us.
"This competition always provides us with a different challenge. You can end up playing clubs in a different league, or a different games programme, or even Academies of a different category. We are very much looking forward to this game. Collectively we have shown different traits to get to where we are, and ultimately, the boys deserve this opportunity to test themselves.
"The FA Youth Cup has a great tradition and is the biggest competition the youth players can play in. It is the closest the younger players will get to playing in a first-team environment, as it provides something different from their league fixtures. Having the matches take place in a stadium, under the lights, and having the first-team staff in attendance just adds to the experience for the young players. It is the first set of games where the focus is on the result. For those players that go on to have successful careers in the game, they can draw on those experiences that come from competition, and for those who don't, it will be an experience that they will never truly forget.”
With government restrictions still in place, it may mean that Gribble's side may have to wait before they play in front of fans on the Big Bank once again. While no official date for the fixture has been announced, it is likely the fourth round clash will take place without spectators, and supporters will have to tune into the live streams once again to keep a track of Exeter’s young proteges, much to the disappointment of Gribble.
“The fans can definitely be inspirational for our players. Supporters of this club have recently seen players graduate and become successful so they have taken a keen interest in the Academy. They always want to see which players are the next to come through, and it is a massive shame they can’t be there to see it in person. However, credit has to go to the football club for broadcasting the games through the live streams. It is a great way fans can still support the team.”
Following a revised FA Youth Cup schedule, the FA has instructed that all fourth-round ties must be played by Saturday 3rd April 2021, and further information about City’s fourth-round tie will be announced in due course.