As the ball sailed over the heads of the Sunderland defenders, there seemed little danger. The nearest man was Jack Rodwell; the very Rodwell who has won 3 England caps, commanded over £20 million in transfer fees and earns a reported £60,000 a week. Surely such an accomplished defender would have no problems dealing with this situation? Then Ryan Loft, with just 9 first-team appearances for Stevenage to his name, hurtled out of nowhere, not only beating Rodwell to the ball but leaving him flat on his face in the mud.
It’s hard to think of a better metaphor for Exeter U-23s and the incredible success that they’ve achieved against the odds, leaving far richer and far more experienced opponents with their faces soiled by falling face-first into a quagmire of embarrassment at the hands of a League Two development side. In the Premier League Cup, our U-23s were drawn in a group against Brighton, Hull and Sunderland. I thought that little old Exeter must be there just to make up the numbers – Brighton are currently in the Premier League, and Hull and Sunderland were there last season.
No doubt all have budgets and facilities to put our modest club in the shade, so I headed to our first match against Brighton to support our lads with little hope or expectation. Indeed, following their promotion last summer, Brighton signed a number of players with significant first-team experience abroad, who have gone into their U-23 squad, such as Ales Mateju and Soufyan Ahannach, who has since gone on loan to Sparta Rotterdam.
“i knew i’d seen something a bit special”
The gulf in class was apparent as Brighton set about playing a possession style of football rarely seen at St James’ Park, or outside the Premier League for that matter. It felt like our job was merely to keep the score down. However, the score was not kept down – yet this wasn’t our problem! We walked off the pitch 4-1 winners; heroic defending kept Brighton at bay for the first hour, then as they tired late on, we obliterated them. Walking home that night, I knew I’d seen something a bit special.
Next up were Hull, who escaped with a 1-1 draw. Had Loft’s last minute shot found the back of the net rather than the post, the scoreline still wouldn’t have flattered us. This failure to get the win we deserved looked costly when the Sunderland team sheet was posted. In addition to the aforementioned Rodwell, it featured the Welsh international Jonny Williams, Northern Irish international Paddy McNair, Brendan Galloway and Lynden Gooch, all with Premier League experience – McNair’s with Manchester United!
We’d had our fun in the first 2 games, but surely now footballing gravity was going to assert itself? Particularly as, the day after a first-team game, our ranks were depleted with U-18s starting in their stead. Yet Rodwell’s embarrassment was matched by his team – we won 2-0, and frankly it could have been more. We sit proudly top of the group, and guaranteed qualification to the last 16 with a match still to play.
So how has this happened? I’m sure the imperfect state of the St James’ Park pitch has played a part, but there’s a much more significant reason – our team is very, very good. Jordan Storey has started the last 2 first-team games, and has all the physical attributes to be a commanding centre-back. Alex Hartridge is less physical, but his reading of the game is so good that perhaps he might go on to be even better, particularly as he is two years younger. In midfield, the tall Alex Byrne is always quietly excellent at the parts of the game that seldom make it onto highlight reels, and looks tailor-made for the physical battle that is the centre of the pitch in League Two. Then the star of the team, now Ethan Ampadu has gone to Chelsea, is 17-year-old Jack Sparkes, whose left foot is of such quality it’s hard to imagine it will be long before he follows Ampadu out of League Two.
“loft could well cement a first-team place”
Up front, Loft’s loan from Tottenham is well worth making permanent. With his strength, pace and eye for goal, he is perhaps the ideal lower-league target man. Then there’s Matt Jay, a little terrier of a striker, whose 2 goals saw off Brighton, and whose hold up play and control are exceptional for someone of his diminutive stature. Then there’s the U-18s who played their part against Sunderland, who might be a bit further off first-team action, but who there’s no doubt have significant potential.
All the names listed above are easily capable of first-team football, and everyone at the club, particularly Paul Tisdale and the U-23 manager Matt Taylor, deserve huge credit. I really hope that they are brave enough to take the final step, and trim the squad so that these lads get a real chance at first-team football next season. This is potentially a golden generation too good to go to waste. Whether or not we get promotion in the next few weeks, Exeter’s future is looking very bright. And I would urge anyone reading this to see for yourselves when we play our last 16 match – these lads have earned support, and you might just get to see Goliath fall flat on his face.