Harrison Rogers takes a look at the success behind the Exeter City academy, with recent success stories Ollie Watkins and Ethan Ampadu now finding their feet in the top flight.
As Ollie Watkins tapped in from close range to complete his 35-minute hattrick against Liverpool many Exeter fans looked on with a familiar sense of pride. For many clubs, especially at League Two level, producing a player of Watkins’ calibre would be exceptional, maybe even generational. Yet for Exeter City, it is almost the norm. Whilst Watkins may well prove to be the most successful academy graduate of recent years, he is far from the only one who has achieved notable prominence within the English game.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Exeter City’s academy has been a vital part of the club’s plan in recent years, providing both talents to be sold on and starters for the first team in equal measure. This article will shine a light on this incredible success of Exeter City’s academy by charting the meteoric rise of Watkins and, the other shining star of recent years, Ethan Ampadu, before examining why this model is so vital to the club.
Ollie Watkins quickly became a promising name within Exeter City’s youth ranks after joining the academy set up in 2005. From an early age, his potent combination of natural talent and electric performances; especially in 2013-14 season where he scored 30 goals for the City’s U18 team, excited many observers. Whilst a loan move to Weston-Super-Mare was required to refine his skills, by the time he was twenty, Watkins had managed to establish himself as a regular starter in the City first team. Despite his young age, Watkins went from strength to strength. His blend of mercurial attacking talent and maturity beyond his years, meant that he quickly cemented his status as one of the brightest young players in the Football League. Unfortunately for Exeter, this undoubted ability attracted a plethora of admirers and meant that, in 2017, Watkins moved up the footballing pyramid to Championship club Brentford. In the years since Watkins has transformed himself from a versatile attacking talent full of potential, to one of the most prolific strikers in the country. Having recently secured himself a £28 million move to the Premier League with Aston Villa, the sky is seemingly the limit for this graduate of Exeter City’s academy.
When Ethan Ampadu made his debut for Exeter City, at 15 years, 10 months and 26 days against Brentford, he broke an 87-year-old club record. Despite his unprecedented age and the media attention this feat garnered, he was named Man of the Match. Whilst to many uninformed observers this may have been a shock, to those at Exeter who had charted his development over several years, it was in fact, the opposite. From a young age Ampadu, a centre-back or holding midfielder, was seen by many as a generational talent with ability and physicality that belied his young years. Whilst he often found himself playing way above his age group, he continually excelled himself. Unlike Watkins, his stay at Exeter was short, only 3 first-team appearances, with Chelsea signing the youngster on a professional deal before his 17th birthday. Whilst his career has not yet taken off as many perhaps expected, with only a handful of club appearances so far, Ampadu’s young age means that there is plenty of time for his undoubted talent to shine through, especially now with a recent loan move to Premier League Sheffield United.
These two players, both of whom will undoubtedly become permanent fixtures at the top level of European football, are just two examples of Exeter City’s academy graduates. Over the past two decades, a plethora of talent has flooded out from the club’s Cliff Hill base, ranging from Matt Grimes and Dean Moxey to George Friend and Matt Jay. The importance of this continuously moving production line to Exeter City cannot be overstated. Firstly, it has consistently helped provide Exeter with sizeable sums of money that have significantly aided in their continual survival and development. For instance, following Watkins’ recent move, Exeter will receive around £4 million, a sum of money that is vital due to the financial difficulties the club will face as a result of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Secondly, not only has it helped financially, but it has also been vital for the club on the field.
The club consistently lines up with several academy graduates in their matchday squad. For example, seven of the first-team squad were academy graduates during the club’s recent win over Carlisle. Whilst solely relying on this model alone may be foolish, as there is no guarantee of the quality of talent coming through, (you won’t always get an Ampadu or a Watkins,) the central role of this development pathway for Exeter City FC is clear for all to see.