The Spartans youth and junior football programmes are positive despite fresh challenges up ahead, says Essex Spartans U17 Head Coach Julius Hobbs.
New to the Spartans organisation this season following a solid coaching career in Kent, Hobbs has observed a drop in numbers because of new rules and re-structures in youth and junior-level football.
The 2016 divisional champions have a significantly reduced squad for the 2018 season, but are working hard to make sure this does not hold them back.
“The retention from last season is small, mainly due to the number of players now age-ineligible after a restructure,” says Hobbs.
“Much of last year’s defence has now had to move to Junior football.
“Nevertheless, the Essex Spartans Youth programme comes into 2018 in a very encouraging position. Pre-season training has been good, and the team are progressing well.
“The returning veterans are showing their quality, and the rookies are picking things up quickly, and with enthusiasm. There is a lot of raw talent this year, and this will begin to show later in the year once the players get to grips with contact football.
“It is also encouraging to see quite a few new players wishing to try the sport, and I am happy that if we retain all of the players that have been to training, then we will successfully complete the season ahead.”
Hobbs praises the attitude and commitment of his youngest charges, with some players on the U17 team as young as 13:
“The age changes imposed last year have meant that this year’s team is quite young, but this is in itself very exciting.
“I believe that the team will be competitive this season, and if we can keep the majority of players into next year and beyond, the next three seasons could be very good indeed.”
Last season the Spartans side were fit to play every scheduled game, but some other teams at youth level suffering from similar challenges of dwindling numbers and injuries meant chalking up an unusually high number of 1-0 forfeit victories.
To counter this, Hobbs and his team have worked hard to arrange a full pre-season campaign across the country for the Spartans’ youngest players.
“One of my key aims was to provide as much football for the players this year as possible,” he says.
“We have a very full pre-season playing schedule, with a friendly tournament on March 3rd at Lincolnshire Bombers; also playing Eaton Jaguars and Doncaster Colts; a friendly tournament at the Kent Exiles on 18th March, playing the Exiles Outlaws, Exiles Rebels, and a team to be announced, finishing our pre-season with a one-off game against Hertfordshire Cheetahs at Thames Rugby Club on March 25th.
“I am confident that this will prepare the team well for the season ahead.”
The Spartans Youth team remain in the same division as last season and are likely to face familiar opponents such as Kent Exiles Outlaws, Kent Phoenix and the East Kent Mavericks, along with the exciting Essex derby with Colchester Gladiators.
Historically the U17 travelled to Cornwall in August 2015 for the playoffs, then won their division in the summer of 2016 and missed out on a place at the 2017 playoffs on points difference.
Hobbs is confident that continuing winning ways is entirely possible, despite a smaller and less experienced squad for 2018.
“We must be competitive, and I believe that we will be,” he says. “The early signs are positive, but we have to continue working to ensure that we are both hard to beat, and can move the ball.
“The goal of the team should be to make a bid for the post-season. Going to Britbowl is a fantastic experience for all concerned, the League run this event very well, and despite the inexperience of the team, why not us? It cannot be the achievement that defines success and failure, but it is a target that we should aspire to.
“It is very important that everyone involved, from players, to coaches, and including parents, enjoys the Spartan experience this year, and has fun. This really is what running a team is all about, and if we succeed in this regard, it will have been a good year.”
Academy training is held at Gateway Academy in Tilbury on Friday evenings (U17) and Sunday mornings (U19).
Boys and girls aged 13-18 interested in joining the Essex Spartans U17 or U19 teams should email firstname.lastname@example.org.