Following the announcement of the club’s retained list, and the news that five of this season’s under-18s squad were handed professional contracts, under-18s Head Coach, Chad Gribble, offered his congratulations to Jack Arthur, Jack Veale, Nelson Iseguan, Ellis Johnson and Alfie Pond.
“First and foremost, I have to congratulate the five lads and their families. A high amount of time and effort, support and energy has gone into their footballing journey, and for a long time, these guys have had a fantastic support network around them to help them through. It is certainly a proud day for the Academy. It is another five young players that have been given the opportunity to become the next set of homegrown players for Exeter City Football Club.
“Four out of the five of them have been at the club for a long time. Jack Arthur, Jack Veale and Alfie Pond all joined the club as under-7s, and from there graduated to the Academy, so you might say they have done the full journey all the way through.
"The three are all local lads, and managed to move through the age groups. Jack Veale captained the under-18s this season, and Alfie captained in Jack’s absence, so they are both good characters and with real leadership qualities.
"Jack Arthur has been in and around the first-team, and has played for the under-23s. I know he is a massive Exeter City fan, so for him I know he is really pleased to secure a deal with the club.
"Nelson Iseguan is also Exeter based, and he came from one of our performance centres. A bit like Ollie Watkins, he came in at 11, but it didn’t work out, came in as a 12-year-old, and again it didn’t work, and it wasn’t until his third trial at 13 when he joined up with us. After that, he progressed and at 14-years-old was representing the under-16s. As an under-16, he played for the under-18s, and was always a real threat to the opposition. I think you saw that in this season’s FA Youth Cup and the EFL Youth Alliance Cup. He made his debut for the first-team this season in the Papa John’s Trophy too, so for someone who got into youth football quite late, and often experienced setbacks, this is a great achievement.
"For Ellis Johnson though, what a story. He was released by Leeds United as an under-16, and then came in for a week-long trial. We liked him so we offered him a two-year scholarship, and then two minutes into his debut he broke his ankle, so he missed his first year. We were then hit by the lockdown, so he has earned his contract off the back of 6-8 months of work as a second-year scholar. He came back unfit after his injury, so it took some time to get up to speed but since then he has gone from strength to strength, and was a real positive for us in the FA Youth Cup and under-23s. He is a player who has now been able to show us his potential, and the amount of progress he has made after two years of suffering, setbacks and pain is brilliant.”
Despite all playing in different positions, the five have played big roles, particularly this season, in helping the young Grecians achieve success out on the pitch. City finished third in the Youth Alliance South West division, reached the fourth round of the FA Youth Cup, were knocked out in the semi-finals of the southern section of the Youth Alliance Cup, before they finished as runners-up in the Merit League just a few weeks ago. Gribble highlighted their influence on particular moments throughout their scholarships.
“I think as scholars, what the five of them have done is added an impact to our matches. We get a lot of talented players who come through the door here, but these five have turned that potential into performances out on the pitch.
"Jack Veale has contributed in a number of ways, with goals and assists, and despite being a midfielder is our second top goalscorer this season. He scored twice against AFC Bournemouth in the FA Youth Cup and scored an injury-time winner against Plymouth Argyle in the league, and managed to step up in big moments and big occasions.
"Nelson Iseguan always posed a threat to the opposition. He has provided a lot of assists across the two years, and we get a lot of crosses into the box when he plays. Alfie Pond and Ellis Johnson impact in a different way as defenders, but they have helped keep a number of clean sheets, as well as show us how to start attacks with their forward balls.
"Ellis in particular has provided assists with his deliveries, and showed us his quality on the ball when he scored the winner against Cheltenham Town in the FA Youth Cup.
"Jack Arthur has made some big saves in big moments. Sometimes that can go unrecognised being a goalkeeper, but I remember one moment in particular in his first year as a scholar when we played Plymouth and won 1-0. Jack made a fantastic save down to his left in tricky conditions, and it is moments like that can win you football matches, and there have been times we have won games because of Jack Arthur. So what I would say is that all of them in their own way have made a positive impact on the team.”
But while the five remain relatively young in the life of a footballer, they were seen as the senior members in what was an inexperienced under-18s squad this year. Gribble admitted how they supported the younger players in what was an extremely competitive campaign.
“The five have also helped the younger members of the under-18s squad this season. They were all in that inexperienced position once, particularly Jack Veale and Jack Arthur who came into the under-18s set up very young, while Alfie Pond played his first season with the under-18s out of position. But they all know how it feels. They have all been exposed to first-team training at some point this season and what they have done is brought some of that knowledge into the under-18s group, and supported and encouraged the younger players. Everyone needs everyone in the under-18s squad, but what the five have done is add a calming influence, particularly in the cup games this season. I remember Jack Arthur in the changing room before one match with Plymouth was quite settling and calm. That relaxed the room and showed he had a real mature and focused head on him, and I think he brought that from when he was away with the first-team."
Typically, the five players would rest and recover during their summer break, before joining up with the first-team players and coaching staff in preparation for the new season. Often the first-year pros are sent out on loan to local men’s teams, however, with COVID-19 still impacting things around the country, there is a sense of keeping an open mind in terms of their development over the course of the next 12 months.
“The five of them have been training with the first-team regularly, and have all played six or seven times for the under-23s in fixtures we arranged during the back end of this season. They, like the first-team, finished last Friday, and they will use this summer to rest up and work on their off-season programmes before they will return at the back end of June for pre-season training with Matt Taylor and the rest of the players. Pre-season is a great opportunity for them to showcase their abilities.
“Traditionally the club would look at sending them out on loan because that becomes a massive part of a player's development. But with Exeter City, you never know. We pride ourselves in giving young players opportunities, and there is no better opportunity for them than when they come back as first-year professionals in June.”
But while a sense of optimism and positivity surrounds St James Park regarding their new Academy graduates, unfortunately, there were some members of the youth side who weren’t offered professional deals, and they will leave the club at the end of the season when their scholarships conclude.
“While every season gives you some real positives, there are some not so positives to come out of it, and unfortunately we weren’t in a position to offer Frank Lovett and Alex Moyse professional deals. They were big members of the under-18s group, and are fantastic young men. They both impacted under-18s matches from start to finish, and the way they conducted themselves was fantastic. They were certainly close calls, and they will undoubtedly play at a good level of football. I know that they both have already been given opportunities elsewhere and I wish them all the very best. We will continue to support them, and I have no doubt they will achieve success with whatever they decide to do in the future.”