Successful Academy football has become synonymous with Exeter City, the successes of high profile graduates such as Ethan Ampadu and Ollie Watkins are often cited as players created through a system that the football club so consciously believes in.
In recent years that footprint is beginning to find its way into Women’s Football, David Gribble spoke with Exeter College’s Sport’s Academy Director Chris Wall to better understand how that impact is starting to bring significant reward.
Chris played Semi Professional Rugby whilst studying for his Post Graduate Certification and, on completion, moved into the Teaching profession. Chris began his work at Exeter College inspired by witnessing Rugby players who had seen their careers curtailed by injury. Whilst coaching locally, he wanted to turn focus on providing a specialist environment where students could focus on their studies, alongside receiving quality training and competitive sporting opportunity. His role at Exeter College now allows Chris to replicate that philosophy across many sports.
Of the current Women’s first team squad, five players are studying at Exeter College, with many of the Team’s recent successes also being part of the Sports Academy system. This past week Sasha Henderson become the latest City player, and Academy Student, to earn a scholarship in the US, her achievement coming soon after Ella Mae Miller began her scholarship in Kansas.
So, for an aspiring female footballer, how does it work? “Students apply to study full time courses and enter our performance trial process; this allows the potential of them being offered a place in our sports academy programme. Our partnership with Exeter City allows individuals, who are already part of their own performance pathway, an ideal opportunity to impress coaches and put themselves in an position to secure a Sports Academy place.”
Whilst the process of being in a College environment and receiving focussed Sport Training is a wonderful opportunity, Chris is keen to point out that it is a study specific programme. “Students must focus on their studies and achieve in the classroom to be able to access the three sessions of training a week and fixtures within their scheduled timetable.”
The Exeter City method, in partnership with Exeter College, has certainly seen reward in the men’s game, replicating that process into the Women’s game is the current aim. “We started working with Exeter City some 18 years ago. Our recent success in the female game was forged through implementing similar strategies to the men’s game. We have a coaching team which is made up of a specialist coach and senior lecturer in Kat Sheffield and Exeter City Women’s Coach Aaron Wakley. This allows sharing of expertise, great player welfare, progression routes and opportunities to develop.”
The partnership with Exeter City Women’s Team is a vital element for improvement in young female footballers, the opportunity to play in Tier 4 of the Women’s Football pyramid is the ideal situation for players to put into practice what they are learning. Exeter City’s Development Team is another ideal opportunity for Sport’s Academy students to gain vital experience. “Competing against quality opposition, putting their skill set under pressure and growing as part of a team are all key components to the improvement of the players.”
The achievements of recent seasons have been notable, progress has been significant both as an Academy and with the quality of players developed. Chris has certainly overseen plenty of highlights. “Our very first 11 a side fixture, as well as making the decision to compete in the top ECFA League in 2019 stand out as huge milestones in the Women’s Football Academies journey. However, more recently, Georgie Barbour Gresham’s selection for the England College’s Team, being nominated as Captain, and finishing her College course with an outstanding grade profile is pretty special.”
The growth in Women’s football is substantial, over 2.6 Million Women in the UK now play football, and opportunities are starting to appear at a greater rate for female footballers. Those opportunities are very much available through the Exeter College and Exeter City partnership. “I think we are only scratching the surface of what can be achieved. Continued work on infrastructure, participation levels and interest in the game will grow as youngsters see the possible pathways and opportunities which are now becoming available to female players. I can only see the partnership going from strength to strength. More teams for both parties, more young girls aspiring to be part of the College programme and then those girls progressing to play for Exeter City.”
The success of the Men’s Academy system at Exeter City did not happen overnight, it has been a continued process of hard work and dedication that has eventually led to a string of high quality talent being available for the first team coaching staff to improve and develop. With that system being implemented in the Women’s set up and high quality young players now impacting the first team, the future looks bright. Could we see a player, who studied at Exeter College Sport’s Academy and played for Exeter City, in the Women’s Super League in the near future? You would not rule it out.