Exeter City’s Under-18s gave two encouraging performances last week as the opening game of the Youth Alliance South West division moved a step closer.
The young Grecians kick-off their competitive campaign this weekend when they travel to AFC Bournemouth Under-18s, however, high-scoring encounters in the past seven days with firstly, South Gloucestershire and Stroud College, and secondly, Bristol City U18s, have really instilled belief in Exeter’s Head of Coaching and Player Development, Kevin Nicholson, and the rest of the Academy coaching team.
After a few days of training, City’s youngsters began their penultimate week of pre-season with a clash with SGS College in what Nicholson described as ‘a more realistic challenge’ for his players following their friendlies with men’s clubs Tavistock AFC and Exmouth.
Former Leeds United and Forest Green Rovers manager, David Hockaday, took charge of the well-run college outfit, who looked to keep things tight and restrict the Grecians to very little. Meanwhile, Nicholson acknowledged the midweek contest provided exactly what his squad required in their preparations for the league season.
“SGS College gave us the kind of test we needed. It allowed us to put into practice some of the things we had practised, particularly stuff on the ball, as we had a fair amount of possession.
“We ended up winning 4-1, but it was disappointing to concede. The game meant we could identify areas of the game that need more work, and they ended up scoring from a set-play when they took full advantage of us being a little unorganised.
“The boys have had quite a disjointed pre-season, with some of the second-years earning call-ups to the first team, so some of the plans you might have had in place didn’t materialise, and some of the players you thought you might've given specific minutes to, ended up changing, and so we ended up playing who we had available. But it is what it is, and some of the players might’ve ended up getting more minutes than they would’ve originally thought.
“As the game went on we showed that we were fitter and stronger than the opposition, which resulted in us scoring a couple of goals at the end. Against the men’s teams, we found it harder to break the defences down, but this was a match which allowed us to link up the play and be more ruthless, which will be good for the players’ confidence.”
Nicholson then took his players to Bristol City to play an Academy side with a Category Two status. But despite the difference in levels, Exeter’s contingent performed admirably well and came back down the motorway with a richly deserved 5-5 draw.
Speaking on the subject of the match, Nicholson stated, “It was a good game for the neutral, which ended up in a 5-5 draw. We conceded after just two minutes, through another set-piece, which shows we have got to tighten up in that area of the game before the season properly begins.
“It would be unfortunate for us during the regular season to miss out on points and games because of set-plays because they are a huge part of football across all different levels. But we will put the work in for it this week and we hopefully will be better by Saturday.
“One thing I have to praise however is the players' reaction to setbacks. Bristol City were ruthless in attack, and there were instances when we’ve made the sliding tackle but they’ve still managed to score from it. We ended up going 3-0 down by half-time, but we had played quite well and had the better of the ball. That is a great lesson for the players because it was good for them to see that there is less room for error playing a team at a higher level, and you are often punished more.
“We scored from a set-piece of our own before it became 4-1, and that was when the match went a little crazy. It ended up with us scoring from a corner late on for 5-5 with Harrison King scoring a nice volley to equalise. The boys were never at one another and stuck together which was good to see. For us to come back and to get a result, I certainly enjoyed seeing the lads celebrate that result at the end.”
After spending a lot of pre-season around Matt Taylor and the first-team group, the second-year scholars and the likes of King, Alfie Clark, Gabriel Billington and Pedro Borges have all linked back up with the youth team to strengthen the squad available to the coaches. Nicholson explained how grateful he is to have those players back at his disposal.
“I think Saturday was Alfie Clark’s best game that I’ve seen. He is playing with a bit of freedom after his time with the first team and you really saw it here. He set up one and scored one, and we’ve just got to see that more often from him.
“Harrison [King] played a little safe in the first half, but after half-time, he played like a real captain. He rose to the challenge, and we have got to see that from him every week if he wants to be back training with the manager.
“Pedro has impressed Matt Taylor and has enjoyed a good pre-season, and Gabriel Billington, we’ve got to continue to work with him and get him to be brave and decisive on the ball and start to build attacks as Archie Collins does.
“But with those players back with us, those opportunities for them will be there.”
Tuesday will see the Grecians complete their pre-season fixtures with another stern test against a talented outfit in Swansea City U18s. But, Nicholson has admitted it will be the perfect preparation before they play the Cherries in Saturday’s league opener.
“Swansea on Tuesday is a good last game for us to have. They will look to move the ball around and keep the ball on the floor a bit like Bournemouth like to do so it’ll be good practise for Saturday.
“Overall I’m happy with how pre-season has gone, and I’m happy with the different challenges we have faced. We’ve picked up a few ankle injuries amongst the squad so we are a little bit low on numbers, but that may mean we will lean on the young players such as Jake Richards, Jacca Cavendish, Liam Oakes and Theo Richards a bit more, and we will get to see where those guys are at in their games in these upcoming matches.”