Men's under-21s head coach Shannon Ruth has reflected on an eventful start to the campaign.
His team are sixth in Premier League 2 after eight games and through to the knockout stages of the EFL Trophy, but were knocked out of the Sussex Senior Cup in the third round last week.
Shannon, how disappointing was it to lose in the Senior Cup to Steyning?
The target at the start of every season for us it to reach the final. It’s a competition that we value, so to be out of it is extremely disappointing. We know the challenge the competition can provide. We went from a really positive ten days where we had beaten Aston Villa at home in Premier League 2, Forest Green Rovers on penalties in the EFL Trophy and Hull City 5-0 in the Premier League Cup with everyone is on a real high to probably, without meaning to underestimate Steyning, a great example of anybody being able to beat anybody, regardless of the level. It was a good lesson.
It's been a really positive start to the season results wise though. What's behind that?
We’ve got a really together group that are committed to the style of play - they enjoy coming to work every day. The staff are connected with the players and it feels like we’re in a really good place. Every game we go into we’re confident and we’re pleased that we’re meeting all the demands that come with being an under-21 group, whether that’s supplementing the first team or players being a part of the group that are out on loan.
How big a success was it to reach the knockout stages of the EFL Trophy?
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It’s certainly one of our main focuses, it gives the lads a real education and everyone involved in our setup the opportunity to gauge where they are at and for other people to see our under-21 players in a senior environment. The EFL Trophy is a fantastic competition but a tough one to win games in for all the reasons that we anticipate: playing against senior players, a crowd - lots of things that the players aren’t used to. There’s also a lot of really talented players in League One and Two that our team come up against. So to get out of what we felt was one of the toughest groups and keep a clean sheet in tough circumstances against Shrewsbury was a really positive achievement. There’s also that opportunity to face a tough opponent in the next round.
When a group of young players is doing well, can it be tough to keep their feet on the ground?
The group is a really humble one, but they’re confident. They would never underestimate an opponent intentionally, but young players being young, when they get in a good place they can take their foot off the gas. So we do a lot of work on treating every game the same. We choose when we say we have played well – not the opposition or the competition and winning doesn’t decide it. It’s based on our standards, behaviours and if we felt we followed our game plan to the maximum. The other pleasing thing has been that we’ve been able to continue positive performances with lots of rotation in the squad. The last Premier League Cup game was a great example. We had three players that went into the first team matchday squad [against Sheffield United] and we still won 5-0 at Hull.
When players make the step up to the first team, that means you have less players to pick from. Is that tough or something you have to embrace in your role?
The first box you want to tick as under-21s coach is to try and impact the first-team matchday squad, as well as play a role in helping the first team squad prepare for every game in training. So the players are always going between our group and theirs. That’s a really important because it highlights the representation of the academy, it’s the academy’s main goal. The joy of the under-21s coach is that you see players achieving their dreams.
Secondly, the way the team plays is important, the behaviour of the players can contribute to attracting a loan and that hopefully makes [loan manager] Gordon Greer’s job a little bit easier if people are calling him saying ‘we like your under-21s, the way they play and how they behave’, rather than the other way. We’ve kept evolving the team, seven went out on loan in January and that meant change. We started this season with Jack Hinshelwood, Andrew Moran, Cam Peupion and Odel Offiah involved – Jack has moved into the first-team squad and the other three have headed out on loan. But we’ve managed to keep progressing, with players able and willing to make the step up when the opportunity presents itself. Then we look at the under-18 squad and go from there.
What has been the peak and pit of your season so far?
The peak would be getting into the knockout stages of the EFL Trophy, but I need to bring the win over Hull City [in the Premier League Cup] into it. We kicked off at the same time as the first team [against Sheffield United] and the under-21s were in the dressing room when the first team squad was announced with three under-21s players on the bench. The delight on their faces at seeing their teammates' success is why we’re here. That was a real high.
The low moment was the Senior Cup because we’re expected to win it and those of us who have been involved in the competition for a while know that none of the games are straightforward. The opponent is always fighting to beat you. So I am excited to see how the players react, we’ve got Celtic at the Amex on Friday. I am sure the players will want to give a reaction, they’re an honest group and they’ll be ready to respond well.
That Celtic game will be the first time a few players have had the chance to play at the Amex, how important is that opportunity?
It’s huge. Not only is it a phenomenal stadium, but for an under-21 player the first time they’re playing at the Amex can’t be their first-team debut because there’s already enough pressure around that situation. So if we can give them that opportunity it can only help them further down the line. The players are looking forward to it and from a development perspective it’s a really exciting prospect.