Despite local and national restrictions coming and going throughout 2020, Shaun Cooper is delighted with the progress that his young side have been able to make this season.
The under-21s have played a total of 16 fixtures, scoring 41 goals across the board, while four of the squad have made first team debuts for Jason Tindall’s side.
As we approach the mid-way point of the season, afcb.co.uk caught up with manager Cooper to assess the opening six months of the campaign.
“I’m really pleased so far,” Cooper began.
“This year, compared to previous seasons that I’ve been in the job, we’ve had a lot more games, so we’ve had plenty of opportunities to see the lads playing in fixtures.
“We’ve had a nice blend of under-18s stepping up and the more senior under-21s being around depending on whether they’re with the first team or not.
“The season has started well, we had a good pre-season against some good opposition. I liked that we played some men’s teams and it was a good gauge to see where the boys were at, whether they could cope with that level of physicality.
“From that, we had a few players go out on loan and we’re well represented across the Football League and National League.
“Carl Fletcher has done an excellent job getting the boys out to some good clubs. The older boys are getting some really good experience and the ones who are still here are training really well. Their application is spot on and they’re maturing as young men, so it's so far so good.”
The former defender went on to discuss the valuable experience that those on loan are getting, with the club currently having eight under-21s featuring for professional clubs up and down the country.
Most notably, Jake Scrimshaw recently netted his first EFL goals while playing for Walsall, while Sam Sherring is flying high with Torquay, who are top of the National League.
“It does fill you with pride,” added Cooper.
“You can see how hard the lads have worked to get to the level they’re at and they’re still working ever so hard to get themselves onto a good platform.
“They’re playing at a decent level and you just want them to kick on and keep applying themselves as they have done historically and I know that gives everyone throughout the academy a huge sense of pride.
“It’s pleasing to see but the lads have got to go out there and make it happen for themselves, so they deserve all the credit.”
Back in Dorset, Cooper is delighted with the variety of games his young side are getting, with a mix of matches against fellow academy sides and non-league teams.
In October, the under-21s reached the Hampshire Senior Cup final with a 3-2 win at Moneyfields, a standout moment in a season packed with exciting fixtures.
“I’m really pleased with how the games have gone.
“The boys deserve to be in a cup final, which has of course been spread over two seasons, but I’m looking forward to playing it if we can and I know the lads are excited for it.”
“When we play against academies, they’re really good tests in terms of tactical and technical perspectives but you know what you’re going to get.
“Against men’s teams, it’s a bit more unpredictable and it’s a good opportunity for our lads to play the situation that they’re in and be adaptable – they have to cope with a rapidly changing game.
“Every time we’ve come up against it, we’ve done really well with it, so I’m pleased with the boys.”
With impressive performances for the under-21s, no fewer than four of Cooper’s players have gone on to make their first team debuts this season.
Jordan Zemura, Nnamdi Ofoborh, Gavin Kilkenny and Jaidon Anthony have all been utilised by Tindall in both the Carabao Cup and the Championship this season, something that Cooper believes can motivate the rest of the squad.
“It spurs everyone on,” he continued.
“It becomes real and it’s nice that the lads know that, if they do well, there is an opportunity to be rewarded and get that recognition.
“The lads who have stepped up, they were thrown in on various occasions this year and they’ve all done really well and they’re there through merit and not just to make up numbers. It’s just the start for them.
“On top of that, JZ (Zemura) has got his international caps as well, so I think for those boys they’re just starting what should hopefully be successful careers for them.
“They’re right at the start and they’re working hard ready for their next opportunity. The rest of the boys are inspired by that for sure.”
Cooper concluded by citing the addition of Lewis Price to his backroom staff as crucial to the side’s success in the opening half of the season.
The former goalkeeper, who only retired in the summer, joined this season as a coach after ending his playing career at Rotherham.
“Pricey (Price) is a really good addition.
“He’s fresh from playing and you can just see a real enthusiasm for the game, for coaching and it’s a fresh set of eyes.
“He’s literally just come out of playing so he’s got this players’ mindset and there’s such an enthusiasm that he brings to coaching.
“He wants to share his knowledge and he wants to learn how to coach and, when somebody has that work ethic and mentality, it’s only a good thing for us as staff but also for players – I think he’s been a really good addition.”