Following the completion of their 2022/23 competitive fixtures, it could be argued that Exeter City’s Under-18s have enjoyed another successful campaign both on and off the pitch.
In what became a challenging season for the group, courtesy of the many transition periods they went through, ultimately, the fact that seven of their Under-18s squad penned pro contracts, alongside the already professional Sonny Cox and Harry Lee, it could be argued that this year was, in fact, one of the most successful for the Academy in recent history.
The youth side's campaign began back in July, when a gruelling, yet productive, pre-season provided them with the best preparation ahead of what would be a competitive Youth Alliance South West division.
Back then, City’s youngsters were under the guidance of Kevin Nicholson, and their league results started brightly, as Exeter only suffered one loss from their opening five matches.
However, October saw the Devonians suffer four-straight defeats, during what was a transitional period for the team. With Matt Taylor leaving the club to take the manager’s job at Rotherham, Nicholson moved up the coaching ladder to cover the club's first-team duties, meaning Brad Miller took charge of the matters concerning the Under-18s.
Miller helped the squad re-add a forward impetus, as the young Grecians reached round two of the FA Youth Cup, while in the other knockout competitions, early exits in the Devon Bowl, Youth Alliance Cup, and U18s Professional Development League Cup all helped provide the group with some valuable experiences that also aided the squad's growth.
Meanwhile, in league matters, City put together a run which saw them lose just twice in the final nine league games, which included impressive victories over Cheltenham Town U18s and Newport County U18s, meaning they recorded a sixth-placed finish and qualified for Merit League Two. This saw them face off against Academies from the South East, as well as the South West, in a round-robin format to determine which club came out on top in the second part of the campaign.
With Tom Donati taking over at the helm at the end of the Youth Alliance fixtures, the Exeter youth side arguably went through another phase of adjustment and adaptation under a new regime, just in time for the start of the Merit League.
Commenting on the subject, Donati mentioned that it was another time in the season when the players had a lot of things going on all at the same time.
“When I came in, my first impressions were that I was surprised, but, at the same time, there were a lot of moving parts going on with players out on loan, and the changes that had gone on with the staff.
“In terms of what I brought, I am probably a bit different with my methods than what the boys have worked with previously. With myself coming from a different part of the country, as well as taking part in various leagues, the early stages together were relatively slow and difficult.”
Further to the settling in period with Donati, the Merit League included some long away trips and overnight stays, which brought some real challenges for the players during the second half of the season, however, as previous years have demonstrated, it has always been a time in the year when Exeter players stand up and embrace the hurdles they face.
Donati explained what benefits the Merit League provided for his young group.
“It is different, with the alternative factors of overnight stays and additional travelling time. With where Exeter is geographically, and with what the first team does on a regular basis, there was a part of trying to get the players used to doing it in preparation for that.
“Playing the South East teams, they can give you a different personality, and a different demographic of playing so that is the biggest thing. They play differently psychologically as opposed to playing the regular South West teams where the teams have similar affiliations.”
The Devon youngsters started the Merit League with two draws against Cheltenham Town U18s and Southend United U18s, before a couple of narrow defeats kickstarted a decent run of form and performances afterwards.
“We were definitely short at the beginning of the Merit League fixtures, and certainly less competitive as a team,” said Donati. He added “The positive is that we had some of the boys flying elsewhere, either within the first-team environment or elsewhere out on loan. But we started the Merit League slowly, and weren’t used to the different attitudes we were coming up against.”
It was perhaps the second half of the Newport County defeat that really saw City’s youngsters turn a corner, and in the weeks that followed, an upturn in results started to arrive as a win at Bristol Rovers U18s was then backed up with an emphatic 5-1 victory over MK Dons U18s. Despite losing the next game to Forest Green Rovers U18s, with only nine players finishing the match on the pitch, a 6-0 thrashing of Leyton Orient U18s in their final home match really emphasised how far the Devonians had come under Donati in such a short space of time.
“I think the proverbial penny started to drop in the Newport game, as the boys started to take ownership of everything that was required of them. On that day, albeit we lost 4-3, you could see the boys starting to buy into the methods used,” acknowledged Donati.
“Looking back over everything, and it is always easier doing that, I think more changes were going on with the group that we were not necessarily aware of. What I would consider as normal practice in their training and preparation was not happening, and probably made it, as a whole, a longer transition in terms of the new methods and styles being brought in by myself.
“The general way of strategising and analysing that was taking place was a different method to perhaps what I was used to, but with the boys being exposed to those different ways, it has actually been a benefit for their development.”
An impressive showing in a final-day draw with Brentford U18s meant the ECFC U18s ended their season on a positive note, which perhaps bodes well for the group moving forward.
“I think the Leyton Orient and Brentford game were really good learning curves for the players as individuals. It was a good reflection of where we are, because we were up against some very good youth set-ups, but the endeavour and attitude the team showed was far superior to what we had seen beforehand. The tactical awareness and astuteness that was shown in those games in comparison to when I first came in was a complete contrast. Both fixtures were probably crucial in terms of the player’s development.
“The group have got to praise themselves for that turnaround. The thing with change is that no one likes it when it comes, but you get to see the benefits of it when it does happen. Arguably the penny dropped a few weeks before, but it all came together against Leyton Orient, and yet we still had people missing that day, so we perhaps weren’t even at our strongest on paper.
“Then the Brentford match I’m extremely grateful for because, after 22/23 years of coaching, that was arguably one of the best games I’ve been involved in. It was a game played on a pleasant day, in a pleasant stadium, and played between two teams that really wanted to win. Different styles were being played, but some technically gifted players were on show, and it would perhaps have been cruel if one team went on and won it because it was a deserved even scoreline in the end.”
While many coaches might have been satisfied with how the season concluded; finishing fourth in the ML standings, and rounding off the season as the joint-second top goalscorers might have been good enough for some. But, Donati was quick to recognise that in order to progress with this group, to have the Grecians fighting towards the top of the Youth Alliance South West division, and to compete back in Merit League One, there is still a lot to do.
“You can never be content, and there is lots of work to be done. If I’m totally honest, the Merit League defeats to Forest Green Rovers and Northampton, in particular, leave a bitter taste in me. There are moments in matches where we need to be much better, so I am not overly excited about finishing fourth in Merit League Two, and the real positive is that this group need to step up.
“Across the whole season, we’ve conceded way too many goals. Before I arrived, the average goal count we conceded was at 2.6 per game, and that was reduced to 1.8 after I came in. That means you have to score at least two goals every game to get a result. It is an area we need to work on. It is not the most glamorous part of the game, and a lot of people enjoy coaching the attacking play and possession parts of the game, and although I like coaching those things also, defending is something we’ll need to focus on.”
But while Donati made it clear things need tightening up at the back, it was clear he was relatively happy with what happened in the opposing penalty box, as his Exeter side amassed a total of 24 goals across the nine ML matches, with no less than 10 members of his squad all notching at least once.
“Before I came in, we were scoring on average half the amount of goals in comparison to after I took charge. That isn’t a criticism of anything that went on before I arrived, as that has all aided the players’ development. Since I came in, we have definitely worked on similar ways to score, and now it seems to have come to fruition. We’ve managed to score some incredible goals, and that has been helped by some great work by the analysts, but a lot of them have come straight from the training ground, with some put together by the boys themselves.
“Scoring is the hardest part of the game, and to progress in that department as we have done is incredible, but that needs to continue. Ultimately though, we need to be more aware of what happens at the other end of the pitch, because we don’t want to come away from a side that enjoys playing attacking and free-flowing football.”
Like the City first team, the youth team are already on their summer holidays, but the work and preparations for next season are already underway, and Donati provided a little insight into what the next few months may look like for the Exeter youngsters.
“The boys have finished for the season, as it was aligned with the first team, so they’ll have four or five weeks off. Some will have their GCSEs to complete, so there is not a lot of time off for them, so they will be handed a slightly different programme, but overall, all the boys will have off-season programmes that have been put together by the staff, and they will complete them week by week, so the players are well looked after. Those regimes will have to be adhered to or they’ll end up being behind where they’ll need to be, but hopefully they will all come back excited to get going again.”
But, while attentions are turned on the new U18s group for the 2023/24 season, undoubtedly the most positive bit of news that came out of the Academy this year was that Ed James, Harrison King, Gabriel Billington, Joe O’Connor, Pedro Borges, Mitch Beardmore and Max Edgecombe all signed professional deals with the club in the Spring. Those seven individuals will link up with Gary Caldwell and the first team group for pre-season for the 2023/24 campaign, and the staff from the club's Academy will be hoping those guys will be able to all push on and be the next success story to come out of the youth set-up.
Donati, heralded those youngsters who have earned the deals, and praised the jobs of the staff who had come before him in helping them get to where they have.
“For so many to earn a pro contract is a testament to the work that has gone on beforehand. I have tried my best to support it since I have come in and tried to squeeze out what extra the boys might have, but most of the work had already taken place. These journeys that the boys are on now will be like a brand new page for them, where the demands would have increased, so now, more than before, they will need our support and guidance. This next part of their journey is crucial for their development so the support from the club that they will receive is hugely important.”
Meanwhile, three players who are moving away from Exeter at the end of the season are goalkeeper Andrew Sowden, who has accepted a place at Plymouth Marjon University studying Physiotherapy, George Spencer, who has been offered a scholarship with Southern Florida College studying Environmental Science, and Alfie Clark, who has been offered a scholarship with Florida Atlantic University studying Psychology.
The Grecians Under-18s are due to report back in at the Cliff Hill Training Ground at the end of June, when those members moving down to Devon will complete their accommodation moves, and their induction event at St James Park will take place. The group's pre-season training then commences at the start of July, before the start of the new Youth Alliance season takes place a month later.
Donati rounded off his 22/23 season review with a few select words, in preparation for the forthcoming campaign.
“The scholarship process is 2 years/18 months of a professional experience, and I would recommend any young person going through that to give it everything. There will be ups and downs, but the staff are great and trying to support you with everything, so make the most of every day in and out of the building. It is their experience of what it is like to be a professional athlete, and I really want to bleed it into our group, that they need to strive to be the best that they can be.”