This week marks the EFL’s celebration of Youth Development across the 72 League clubs. Here at Exeter City, we are no stranger to - if not renowned for - our fantastic promotion of academy players into first team football.
As a supporter-owned club, the Academy has been a vital source of first team talent, countrywide recognition, and valuable income.
After its 2006 restructure, the Exeter City Academy works on a three-tiered ‘Players Progression Pathway’ which develops the South West’s best young prospects through education and football. George Friend was the first to graduate that same year and has gone on to captain Middlesbrough in the Premier League - beginning an emphatic 15-year trend, which has seen more records tumble over the last 12 months.
Last season, the Academy had a ground-breaking year with almost 100 more senior appearences registered in our First Team than in our previous best season. Across 2021 The Grecians were also proudly represented on the international stage including at the European Championships.
The last 93 First Team games have featured at least 3 Academy players on the pitch. There have been 325 First Team games in a row with at least 1 Academy graduate in the starting line up. (Even in this fixture Jamie Reid featured coming on from the bench). That game mentioned was over 6 years ago, (30th January 2016), when City travelled to Hartlepool!
This season City games have seen as many as 10 Academy graduates in matchday squads. Statistics released in April 2021 revealed that the club had given the highest share of minutes to players aged 21 or under across all the leagues.
Not only is the Academy’s goal to produce the next generation of footballers, but Exeter City also prides itself in developing well rounded young men and women- suitably fitting our ethos as a club for the community. For Everyone.
Having recently made his 150th Exeter City appearance at just 22-years-old, Archie Collins is a stalwart in the heart of the Exeter City midfield. Though injury disrupted the start of the 2021/22 campaign, Archie has worked his way back into the side, picking up a couple of goals for his troubles. This came off the back of a 20/21 campaigh where the City number 8 started every single league game for his boyhood club.
The real breakthrough of 2022 has been 20-year-old Cheick Diabate who only made his senior debut for the club on New Years Day, putting in a valiant performance in an injury and illness stricken side. Returning from his loan to Truro City, Manager Matt Taylor “wished he had Cheick’s physical attributes” as a player and the young centre-back has cemented his spot in the core of the Grecian defence- even celebrating his birthday with his first senior goal, away at Walsall.
On the subject of first senior goals, Harry Kite’s goal of the month against Bristol Rovers has begun his regular appearance in the matchday squads with a bang. Jack Sparkes is hoping to back up last seasons form which saw him feature more than any other player in the squad. Though a collarbone injury against Leyton Orient in September added a minor frustration to Jack’s early season.
To finalise his recovery, Sparkesy went out on loan to fellow Devon club Torquay United, and this season Exeter City are represented across the South West with future stars featuring for a number of non-league clubs.
Another to establish themselves over the last 12-months was Alex Hartridge. A commanding presence in the Grecian back line with a dangerous long throw, Alex made 34 appearances last season, and had made 22 this season until suffering a knee injury back at the start of December. Alex is now back to fitness and will be pushing for a return to the starting XI.
Gaining crucial senior experience at Barnstaple Town, Jack Arthur; Michael Lilley and Archie’s brother Eli Collins are plying their trade in North Devon. Just along the way at Bideford striker Charlie Hanson looks sharp. Honing their skills in the Southern League with Tiverton Town, exciting winger Nelson Iseguan and solid centre-half and former U18 captain Alfie Pond are impressing at the Ian Moorcroft Stadium.
Outside of our beautiful county, Ellis Johnson represents the Grecians at Cornish side Truro. Bath City are looking after Ben Seymour and Jordan Dyer who have over 80 Exeter City apperances between them. Jamie Nicholson features for Wellington and Jack Veale is regularly present in the Poole Town midfield. James Dodd looks bright in the white of Weston Super-Mare.
The two players City fans have seemed most excited to see develop here in Devon, Sonny Cox and Harry Lee represent Weston and Dorchester Town respectively and both penned their futures at St James Park this summer. Cox made his senior debut in the Papa John’s Trophy, coming on as a second half sub against Cheltenham Town. In the same game, Harry Lee proved his obvious quality to the Exeter City fans, making two excellent saves in the resulting penalty shoot-out, before having to rush to college the next morning.
Returning to the first team squad,the best of the bunch last term though has undoubtedly been Matt Jay. Twenty goals last season earned MJ Fan’s Player of the Year; Player’s Player of the Year; League Two Team of the Season, FIFA 21 TOTS and the PFA League Two TOTS as well! In March 2020, Jay’s first senior hat trick against Stevenage also grabbed Player of the Month, in what has been a season of superlatives for City’s Number 17.
MJ’s excellent work and commitment ot the club, becoming the longest serving member of the first team, resulted in Matt Taylor handing Jay the captain’s armband over the summer and the new skipper has repaid the faith, edging ever closer to his 50th Exeter City goal.
A prolific spell of developing talented young female footballers is entering a new cycle with the Exeter City Women’s Team. With key players Sophie Gillies and Ella-Mae Miller taking up scholarships in the United States to further advance their development, and Georgie Barbour-Gresham studying away from the City, the next group are now beginning to make their mark with the Senior side.
In what has been a record breaking year for the Grecian’s, The Women played at St James Park against Plymouth Argyle back in October- part of the clubs #HerGameToo celebration weekend. A record 1,380 fans attended the game as the Girls began their County Cup journey - which has set up a final against Torquay United on April 22.
Captain Manfy Sharpe has spearheaded Abbie Britton and Aaron Wakley’s side to success this season. Sharpe recently reached 100 appearences for her childhood club and alongside Emily Toogood  have been the experienced heads in the Women’s side.
Connie Pengelly is the name that captured most headlines in 2021. The eighteen year old forward scoring an FA Cup Hat trick against Cardiff City Ladies, as well as a further hat trick as City returned to the Devon County Cup Final with success over Feniton. Pengelly, in what has been a breakthrough season, has also cemented her place amongst the top forwards in the National League.
Under the guidance of the Exeter College Women’s Football Academy, Charley Prouse and Jess Sandland are gaining recognition in the fourth tier of the English Women’s League. Prouse, a strong defender showing composure way beyond her sixteen years. Sandland, a dynamic and athletic midfield player, is another who has been a mainstay of the Grecians successful season, not only excelling in midfield, but also as part of a defensive three.
With the Exeter City Development Team enjoying their own success, featuring a host of players that are also part of the Exeter College Academy, the pathway from the Girls Development Centre through to the Senior team is becoming well-trodden. In maintaining the Exeter City ethos, Exeter City Women’s teams offer opportunity for young players to develop and star at Senior level.
The beauty of the Exeter City Academy is its openness for flourishing birds to fly the nest. Away from St James’ Park, “our own” are brandishing the club’s flag with distinction.
Ethan Ampadu is currently on a European adventure with Venezia in Serie A. The Welshman has racked up Champions League appearences at RB Leipzig and Chelsea since leaving for Stamford Bridge in 2017.
A strong end to the season earned Ethan a spot on the plane for Euro 2020. That made Ethan the first Academy Graduate to have ever been included in a major tournament squad!
Silverware beckoned for another ex-Grecian. In January 2021, City’s youngest ever player Ben Chrisene made his senior debut for Aston Villa. Ben capped off a fantastic first season in the Second City, scoring the opening goal in Villa’s FA Youth Cup Final victory.
Staying at Villa Park, one player has shone brighter than most - not just of our graduates, but in the Premier League as a whole.
Ollie Watkins has had a year to remember. Twice in the ‘Players Progression Pathway’ at Exeter City, in 2016 Watkins became a Grecians hero with two late goals against rivals Plymouth Argyle. A year later Ollie fired City to Wembley before earning a move to Brentford and now Aston Villa.
With 5 Premier League goals this campaign, Watkins is hoping to excel under new manager Steven Gerrard. In March 2021, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Ollie swivelled and fired his first goal for England within 20 minutes of his international debut back- breaking an 83-year duck for a Grecian scoring for the Three Lions (Cliff Bastin, 1938). At the time of writing, Ollie has five senior caps and will be setting his sights on a push to the World Cup in November.
At Exeter City we are proud of every single player, past and present, to have come up through our Academy. In total, the 50 men’s Graduates since the Academy’s restructure in 2006 have made nearly 6000 professional appearences between them.
As the EFL celebrates Youth Development across the three leagues, the chorus from the Big Bank will always hail the “local lads… who love the Red and White, because the Academy is Dynamite!”.