There was something rather unfriendly about the Saints B team’s pre-saeson warm-up clash with Eastleigh on Monday evening. Four goals, one red card, one penalty, four strikes off the woodwork and countless sliding challenges, this was a game with little on the line but pride - yet it was armed with a real edge.

For David Horseman and the Saints B coaching staff, this is exactly what they wanted - and expected - to see from their team.

READ MORE: Horseman on loans, exciting starlet and B team progress

‘Enthusiasm’ is a word Horseman wants associated with his team and fortunately, they don’t appear to be lacking it in the slightest.

“If you look at our style and if you look across some of the Red Bull teams, it’s a really young style - you have to have energy and enthusiasm,” he told the Daily Echo. “You saw tonight we have loads of enthusiasm and energy and the first team, they have loads of enthusiasm and energy, they want to learn and it’s very very physically demanding.”

Energy certainly wasn’t lacking at Silverlake Stadium on Tuesday evening as Saints raced into a 2-0 first-half lead before Ryan Hills was sent off midway through the second half for a last-man sliding challenge. But from there, things swung the other way and Saints were pegged back to 2-2 by the ten-man National League side.

Daily Echo: The Saints B boss speaking after the 2-2 draw with Eastleigh. Image by: Ricky HartThe Saints B boss speaking after the 2-2 draw with Eastleigh. Image by: Ricky Hart

It would be wrong to say Horseman liked seeing that relative crumbling but he recognises the opportunity it will now provide to see what his players failed to do.

“It’s a real fine balancing act,” he says. “They’re at a real good Category 1 Premier League club who have a history of producing players so the standards have to be really high. 

“If they’re 16 then they’re good enough to play at this level or we wouldn’t play them. We understand that and we have to push them. But we also have to understand that they’re going to make silly mistakes which (tonight) cost a game. What we have to do then is go back and review it, we sit down individually and collectively, we go through what we could have done better. Because if you don’t go through the bad moments, how do you learn from them? 

“That’s the bit that I think we balance pretty well. It’s not always easy because it’s emotional and we want to win and they’re at a stage where winning is important - let’s not get away from it - but it’s not the be-all and end-all.

“So tonight we chuck away a game we probably should cruise, and they’re big learning moments. As long as we learn, no problem. But this can’t happen again and that’s the key for the young lads. We try to balance. We’re straight and we’ll pick a couple out when we review the game because they need to do better in both boxes but then we understand we go back to work because it’s not going to happen overnight with young players.”

Winning is a lot more fun than losing and Horseman is still thinking about how they just missed out on last season’s Premier League play-offs. But the focus is on growth and ultimately, producing players for the first team.

It’s hard not to believe in this current group. Most Saints fans are aware of Diamond Edwards after his cameo for the first team in Austria but six members of the team that took on Eastleigh played in the U18s side that won the Southern Division last year before just losing out to Manchester City in the National Final.

The talent and application are no doubt there. But they still have a long way to go.

“There are some good boys here and they’re so young. I think people don’t really understand - take Olly (Lancashire) out - and this is an U19 team.  They would have only played players their own age and some of them - even last year - the oldest they would have played against is say 21 years old. Now they’re playing against players who have played 400 league games or whatever. Kami Doyle has just turned 17 - so it’s just that context. There has to be balance, they have to produce, but it’s just that context.”

That youthful exuberance - or enthusiasm - is part of what makes this group so exciting and makes the learning and development just that much more important. It’s why Eastleigh - a National League side - was chosen for a pre-season experience, while the rest of the pre-season programme has been filled with other tough - and varied - tests.

Recently, Horseman and his squad visited Spain for a pre-season training camp before returning to the UK ahead of the start of the Premier League 2 season on August 8th away at Nottingham Forest.

Pre-season actually started with a 2-2 draw at seventh-tier Frome Town before they lost 2-0 to FC Cartagena and drew 1-1 Villarreal B abroad. League One Wycombe were next and Thiery Small’s goal had made it 1-1 until two late goals from Gareth Ainsworth’s side took the game away.

They haven’t won any of their four pre-season games yet but that was never really the point. They’ve played very good teams, competed all the way and come away with plenty of positive moments to savour - and negative ones to learn from.

“We’ve purposefully put in a pre-season programme for the B Team which is probably above the level and definitely different challenges from what we’d face in the league,” Horseman explains. “We played a Spanish La Liga 2 team (Cartagena) who were technically excellent. Every time we got the press wrong, they played around us but that was a really good learning experience. 

“We played Villarreal B, age-wise they were similar to us, maybe a touch older - we had strong moments but weren’t good enough with the ball. 

“Then we’ve come back and played Wycombe who basically man for man was the team who got to the League One play-off final and these boys were playing against them. I was away and Louis (Carey) and the boys did a brilliant job up until five minutes to go. They did more than what you would expect if I’m being honest. It was a physical encounter and Wycombe did it properly so it was a really good lesson. And then you come tonight and it’s a bit of a local derby - and we have to judge the players, that’s our job, we have to judge them fortunately or unfortunately - and you want to put on a really tough game. We need those challenges.”

The pre-season has served its purpose and Horseman feels his side are ready, like really ready, for the Premier League 2 season. It’s a sharp contrast to this time last year when Covid measures saw Saints head into the campaign with no pre-season under their belt. Somewhat unsurprisingly, they started slowly and it took until the eighth game for Horseman’s side to record their first league victory. 

Despite the rough start, the B team still only barely missed out on the play-offs. But they bounced back and that was the most important part.

Daily Echo: Kamari Doyle shoots against Eastleigh. Image by: Ricky HartKamari Doyle shoots against Eastleigh. Image by: Ricky Hart

“The boys really stood up to it and the staff really stood up to it so it was a positive end but a really difficult start. But that’s youth football. I think it’s really interesting when people panic when there’s a rough time. We might lose seven on the trot, but you’re going to learn more about certain individuals than when you’re winning 4-0 every week. That’s the balance we try to have with the players - be demanding but also understanding at the same time.

“We missed out on goal difference for the play-offs last season, and when I look back, the amount of games where we had a good chance to bury it but didn’t…that’s disappointing. Because you want to put them under the pressure of the play-offs because that’s when you learn, it’s a miniature version of what the first team is like. So we don’t want a repeat of last year and we’ve got some really talented boys here so we have to make sure we work hard and smart to improve those areas quickly.”

Some of that team’s leaders including Kazeem Olaigbe (Ross County), Thierry Small (Port Vale), and Kegs Chauke (Exeter City) have taken the next step, heading out on loan. Meanwhile, midfielder Jack Turner - who trained for a period with the first team last season - has recently been on trial with Leyton Orient with a view to a loan move, the Daily Echo understands.

This natural progression is good, it means the work in the academy is being rewarded and the departures of previously key players has opened the door for the next group.

“This is the start of my fourth year now and it’s been the best pre-season. I think the staff have been amazing, the players have been really good. Even the loan boys who still have not quite gone out yet, they’ve put their bodies on the line. This is - in the three seasons coming up to my fourth - this has been the best pre-season with brilliant people and hopefully long may that continue and the most important thing is hopefully we’ll produce some players, they have value and I think if we keep going with the enthusiasm they have, there won't be a problem with that.”

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