Following the conclusion of the competitive games programme for Exeter City’s Under-18s, the club’s Head of Coaching and Player Development, Kevin Nicholson, explained that he is excited for the Academy ahead of the 2022/23 season.
“I’m expecting big things from this group next year, having had the experiences from this season. There are some good players, and now they will have more experience to go with it.”
Following on from the midpoint of the 21/22 campaign, and the Under-18s’ Christmas break, the youth side returned to action in the Youth Alliance South West division on 8th January when they played in a top-of-the-table clash with AFC Bournemouth U18s. Despite suffering a 2-0 defeat in Dorset, the Grecians responded with a 2-1 away win against Forest Green Rovers U18s at the end of the month.
Despite introducing members of the club's Under-16s into the squad a little earlier than normal, an accumulation of four points from their final three matches, including a thumping 6-1 victory against Swindon Town U18s in their final fixture, meant Chad Gribble’s team finished third in the standings, just three points adrift of the league’s top two, Bournemouth and Plymouth Argyle. That meant that plenty of optimism surrounded the Exeter Academy going into Merit League One, when City’s youngsters were pitted against the best from the South East, as well as the South West. Nicholson explained that this became a part of the season where preparations began for the next season.
“The team had a good run in the FA Youth Cup, and had played well and picked up some good results in the first half of the league after a bit of a slow and tricky start. Come January, you get to the part of the season where the second years go out on loan to men’s football teams, and try and develop their game there, that is when the younger lads get a chance. We had a good sprinkling of Under-16s, added to our first-year group, and together they got a chance to understand what Under-18s football is all about. That will mean at the start of next season, they should need less time to ‘get their feet under the table’ as we will have a somewhat experienced group.
“The likes of Tom Dean, Sam Joce, Max Edgecombe, and Scott Simmons, who came over from London, the experiences they've faced in the second part of the season will all be massive for them. Of course that came with mixed performances, and a disruption to everything on the pitch, so it has its pros and cons, and on top of that with Chad [Gribble] moving on, that made things even more disruptive, but these things happen, and the lads managed to take it all in their stride.
“Being thrashed away at Southend against some big and strong second-years is not something the boys would have enjoyed, but what came afterwards was a massive positive the following weekend. Despite another long trip, and travelling up on the day, they really stepped up against Gillingham. Those kinds of experiences are invaluable for the group.
“If you looked down the age groups, things like injuries, illnesses, COVID cases, people moving on, all had an effect, and you saw that when we played Southend, where we didn’t have a sub. We had four Under-16s come straight into the team, and they had to fight their way through with no support or help from the subs bench. That alone is an experience for them. Against Plymouth, we had a man sent off, players go down with cramp and ended up with Scott [Simmons] playing as a striker due to his cramping, effectively we played on with nine men. These kinds of things are rare in a first-team environment, but they might happen. What I must say is that the players never gave up and they kept trying despite the adversities they faced.”
The opening two defeats to Cambridge United U18s and Southend United U18s in Merit League One were quickly forgotten about as the Grecians then went on one of their most promising runs of the season between the middle of March and the start of April. A decent 1-1 draw at Gillingham U18s, where young U15, Jacca Cavendish was handed his Under-18s debut, was then backed up by an unfortunate defeat by Plymouth Argyle’s U18s where City’s youngsters performed admirably for 75 minutes. After winning in the Devon Bowl just a few days later, a 1-0 win at AFC Wimbledon U18s courtesy of Pedro Borges’ strike saw Nicholson’s side continue their momentum, before a magnificent first-half performance against Stevenage U18s really underlined how capable this new group of players are. Nicholson highlighted though that despite the encouraging results, the bigger goal was to provide chances and develop the players.
“Against Stevenage, we went 3-0 up after playing a fantastic first-half,” said Nicholson. He added, “Because of our control, we made substitutions earlier than normal, which disrupted our rhythm, and then they got themselves back into it before equalising late on. If it was purely about winning, we wouldn’t have made changes, but you have to give opportunities, and that game allowed us to do that.
“What we want now is for them to come back in for pre-season with a better understanding of what it takes at this level. We’ve played some good football at times towards the end of this season, and against the likes of Tavistock in the Devon Bowl, we’ve had 15 and 16-year-olds play well and score some great goals.”
After the 3-3 draw with Stevenage U18s, the points were shared once again in the contest against Portsmouth U18s. What followed however were two difficult days in their final two fixtures. With the squad stretched, and important personnel missing, City suffered two consecutive defeats in their two final Merit League One fixtures to Oxford United U18s and AFC Bournemouth U18s. Nicholson though revealed there were still lots of things to learn from despite having players in unfamiliar roles.
“Over the final two games, we learnt that Pedro [Borges] can do a job for us as a centre-forward. We had to learn to be more patient in attack, and it was all about trying to encourage the midfielders to be the ones to stretch the game and get in behind. The tactical side of the game changed, and we were having discussions with the boys about what we do with the ball and how to play with a ‘False 9’. Now that is something you rarely do in Academy football, but poor George Spencer got a whack on the head against Portsmouth and that meant he was out for the season.”
Whilst you can try to draw comparisons from the first five months of the season for City’s U18s to the second half of the campaign, particularly in terms of the squad personnel, one of the biggest changes was the different challenges the Merit League provided. Away trips became longer, while the style of play they came up against can, and was, a stark contrast to what they faced in the Youth Alliance South West division. All of which helped grow the players even more. Nicholson differentiated between the two ‘league’ competitions.
“When you play in the South West league, you play the same teams a lot and get to know what is coming. It almost becomes familiar. I can only compare the Merit League to when teams play in Europe, when English sides come up against different players, tactics and styles. When we played Southend, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what formation they played for large parts of the game, but it worked well for them against us. But I can imagine that on a bad day, that system may look a bit disjointed. Those are the types of experiences we don’t get to often in the South West. That variety and the surprise element is something different. In League Two, when you play 50-odd matches you can come up against a lot of different styles so you have to be ready for that.”
While the Merit League fixtures certainly provided a great deal of exposure and learning opportunities for the Grecians youth side, the matches in this season’s Devon St Luke’s Bowl arguably gave the greater experiences that will benefit the Exeter youngsters when they look to make it in the professional game against fully grown men. Nicholson acknowledged that the entire cup run gave his players valuable competitive minutes against senior opposition.
“The Devon Bowl was brilliant. The boys had to go to places they’d never been to before, like Plymouth Marjon, where we played on an artificial surface. The team wanted to get through so we could play the likes of the Tavistock’s and Bideford’s on nice pitches in front of bigger crowds. For the lads to fight their way through those early rounds, against men with much more experience, who look to intimidate you and know those little nuances of the game, the boys stood up to it which was good to see.
“In the final, we showed bits of quality at times, but we just couldn’t sustain it. The penalties brought us a good experience, and it was a good experience for me too. It was a good thing for the boys to go through and feel the pressure that comes with it, and it was good for me because we didn’t really prepare for it so next time that is something I can look to do more on. On the other hand, it isn’t often you see your four kicks all saved.”
While the end of the season might have brought the team disappointment in just falling short in the county cup, there are plenty of reasons to remain optimistic with this set of players and what they can achieve next year. Nicholson pointed out that although the bar needs to be set high, the players are capable of reaching that if they continue to work hard.
“I have a lot of expectations with this group. We don’t know who will lead the Under-18s just yet, but once they are in, and they get their head around what is going on, they’ll look to move things forward. There are some good individual players in this group, but they will need to be more professional if they want to become professional footballers. The boys will now be looking to become part of a League One first-team group so the standard has gone up, we have got to up our standards as coaches as well. We will give them everything we’ve got so when the time when decisions about pro contracts come around, as long as we can say, from both sides, we’ve given everything, then those conversations don’t have to be as tough if they don’t make it. It is certainly more difficult when either side could have done more.
“Because of their experiences in these past few months, there shouldn’t be a lot of time needed to adjust when the new season starts. The Under-16s will have a full-time training programme that requires a bit of time to adapt to, and they'll see what their bodies can do, but they’ve all had a whole lot of experiences under their belt now. The boys want to win, and in the league next season we should be looking to see if we can finish ahead of the likes of Plymouth, Bournemouth and Portsmouth, and sure, we can look and say, 'can we win the top Merit League as well?'. The boys have had two good seasons in the FA Youth Cup as well, and we’ll be looking to go further than any other Exeter City youth side has been before. We’ve shown we have got good players, and now we have the experience to go with it. It is an exciting time for the players, but they have to understand that it is all about them now, and where they need to get to.
“The boys had their off-season programmes sent to them the other day, but for two weeks I want them all to forget about football. They need the ability to switch off because it has been a long season and they could do with some downtime, it is all about getting refreshed. Jacob Staines, the Head of Academy Sport Science and Medicine, has organised a good programme for the boys, and now hopefully they will come back fit. In comparison to the earlier years when I played, now they’re expected to come back fitter than when they started their summer thanks to a good off-season programme. The boys come back in on 20th June to go through a couple of joint off-season sessions, before their pre-season starts on 27th June.”