How a behind closed doors season has helped Exeter’s youngsters make their mark

It has been a ‘season like no other’ with all bar a handful of games played behind closed doors – but about the only plus point has been allowing Exeter City’s youngsters to make their first steps in the game in a less pressured environment.

Other than five games in December, every single game this season has been played without fans, although it is hoped that, subject to the Government moving to step 3 of the roadmap, spectators will return for the play-offs.

Jokull Andresson is yet to make an appearance in front of a crowd in his career, while the likes of Josh Key, Joel Randall, and Alex Hartridge, in their first full season, have found themselves almost exclusively playing in front of no-one bar a few club officials and members of the media.

And while the lack of a crowd inside the stadium is not something that anyone wants to continue into the next campaign, Grecians boss Matt Taylor does feel that it has made the integration of the academy players into the first team easier, although admitted the return of spectators next season will pose its own problem for some of them who have never had to deal with some of the usual matchday distractions.

Bolton Wanderers vs Exeter City

“It has been a great season in terms of being able to bleed the youngsters,” Taylor said. “When they make mistakes, in terms of the response from the stadiums, they’ve not felt the moans and groans of thousands but just one or two in the dugout or behind me, so it has been a big learning curve.

“When we sampled some fans back in during December, anyone there can testify it wasn’t the same to thousands on the Big Bank bouncing, and giving the opposition and the referee some stick and encouraging our players. They’ve missed some great games – last Tuesday (against Grimsby) was great with the highs and the lows and the finale of the last 10 minutes of excitement and those are the ones that the fans remember and the best ones.

“It has absolutely been easier to integrate them without a shadow of a doubt. But it can work the other way and more fans can inspire as well as being a hindrance. The main aspect of this season has been keeping the young ones level-headed and concentrating on their game and I can guarantee next season there will be more distractions on a game day.

“Signing autographs, having selfies and interacting with fans on the way in and then clapping them out for a warm up, and this is something some of them haven’t experienced. If you run out in front of the Big Bank and they like you as a player they’ll give you everything and there will be a time when it is full and rocking and they are giving everything.”

One thing that the empty stadiums have meant is that the shouts of the managers, players, and indeed from the press box can be heard by pretty much everyone, but Taylor hasn’t felt that it has affected the way matches in-game are managed.

“I don’t think it has played too big a part,” he said, when asked if he had changed his managerial style of in-game communication due to the lack of the crowd noise.

Exeter City manager Matt Taylor on the touchline during the Skybet League Two Match between Bolton Wanderers and Exeter City at University Of Bolton Stadium, Bolton on May 1st – PHOTO: Steve Bond/PPAUK

“When you watch games back sometimes have to mute it as you are listening to your own voice and the players and the staff as well, but we don’t play at a high enough standard that players can’t hear what we are saying normally and there are only a few stadiums at our level with enough people there to drown out our noise.

“In terms of instructions in games, it hasn’t changed, but the intensity and the feel of the game and the pressure on the players and the referees and yourself to make decisions has. If you have 4-5000 people groaning when someone kicks out of play then you may think more about a substation for the players benefit.

“But fingers crossed fans are in for the playoffs. We are targeting a win to get there but whoever is in the play-offs, we hope to see fans in and it seems we are moving in the right direction in relation to the pandemic and getting people watching live sport.”

Defender Pierce Sweeney, having played more than 200 games for City, also added that the lack of the crowds this season did take some getting used to but, and that some of the young players may be in a bit of shock next season when hopefully attendances are back to normal.

Exeter City player Pierce Sweeney plays forward during the Skybet League Two Match between Bolton Wanderers and Exeter City at University Of Bolton Stadium, Bolton on May 1st – PHOTO: Steve Bond/PPAUK

“It is a shame for the young lads,” the Irishman said. “They are starting their career and the first season they will have and to have no fans is disappointing for them and may be a bit of a shock when there is a full house and if things aren’t going our way, or we are 1-0 down and there’s a bit of a hostile environment, or we are away to Bradford or Swindon or somewhere, so it could be a bit daunting for some of the young boys

“But everyone has to start somewhere and experience it sometime in their career. I have had a fair few of them and to play in front of no crowds can be a bit difficult to pump yourself up as obviously exciting to play a game of football but you kind of get more excited when you know there is 5,000 or 6,000 in the stadium to enjoy it a bit more. It is a bit disappointing for the young lads but we hope at the start of next season there will be a full crowd.

“The play-offs with fans will be a massive plus and will feel like football and a big game and a play-off semi-final and a final. It will only benefit us as players to play in front of crowds.”

The Government roadmap for step 3, which is not before Monday, May 17, would allow outdoor sporting venues to host spectators up to a capacity of 4,000 people or half-full (whichever is a lower number), while in the largest outdoor seated venues, where crowds can be spread out, up to 10,000 people will be able to attend (or a quarter-full, whichever is lower).

It would mean that up to 4,000 fans could attend a play-off semi-final, were the Grecians to get there, at St James Park, while a play-off final at Wembley, on Monday, May 31, would see up to 10,000 fans.

Devon Live