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Inside Exeter City's academy: The small club developing big talent
Exeter City chairman Julian Tagg and graduate Dean Moxey explain the advantages of the club developing their own players
Last Updated: 09/09/19 6:37pm
Ethan Ampadu has just moved to RB Leipzig and they are top of Germany's Bundesliga. Matt Grimes is starring in midfield for Swansea at the top of the Championship. Ollie Watkins has already scored four goals for Brentford in that competition this season. All three are former Exeter City academy players out there showing what they can do in the game.
It is a source of pride for the Grecians. There is some regret too, of course. But that is tempered by the knowledge that the production line of young talent continues. Exeter are also clear at the top of their own table - unbeaten in League Two after picking up 17 points from seven games. No fewer than four academy graduates have already featured.
Three of them are youngsters making their way in the game. The fourth is 33-year-old Dean Moxey who returned to his boyhood club in 2017. "I have had my time away and I have come back to see that young lads are still getting their chance here," Moxey tells Sky Sports. "Other clubs probably wouldn't give them that. It's why I loved coming through here.
"The academy is exactly what this club needs. Obviously, the budget is not the biggest so the club needs the academy to be producing players to help move forwards and that's what's happened. It has changed quite a bit over the years. We have sorted the pitches out and everything about the club has been moving in the right direction since I was first here."
The academy is exactly what this club needs.
Moxey scored the goal that arguably made everything possible - an outrageous 50-yard strike against Doncaster back in 2004 that set up a lucrative FA Cup third-round tie against Manchester United. "People still remind me about it," says Moxey. Exeter's long-serving chairman Julian Tagg is among those who acknowledge the significance of that moment.
The club was on the brink back then. "It is Bury now but we were pretty much there," Tagg tells Sky Sports. "We had a debt of £4.8m."
Exeter were a non-league club at the time of the United game and did not make it back to the Football League until 2009 under Paul Tisdale. But even in the darkest days, the club were smart enough to see the value in retaining their academy. "We had no funding at all so it was very tough to keep it going and keep things professional at that time," says Tagg.
"I could see that the future was very much dependent on us bringing youth through. It is not only the advantage you gain from prospective sales but the advantage you gain from bringing your own players through. It puts more people on the gate and it is always more affordable than bringing players in from outside.
"It takes two minutes to close an academy but it will take 10 years to get it into a space where it's functioning again to support the club. It has taken us a decade and then maybe another five or six years to make it how we want it. For us, it is a vital part of our model. We would be in a very different place if it wasn't for our academy."
Three quarters of a million pounds from the sale of Grimes helped to fund the aesthetic pitches at the training ground. There was a further £850,000 raised through the sale of Ampadu to Chelsea, although that was a source of frustration given the player's obvious ability. A precocious talent, he had made his debut for Exeter aged just 15.
"It was extremely galling," says Tagg. "It was common knowledge that his value was £20m but there was no subjective assessment in the arbitration. Even the people in the arbitration would have liked to do more for us but all we were told is that they are the rules."
As Exeter's reputation has grown they have become a target. Sean Goss left for United in 2015. More recently, Jay Stansfield was sold to Fulham in the summer, aged just 16, on the basis that it was more than they would have received in the arbitration. "It is very difficult for us. Something must be done because it is not fair. The danger is that academies close.
"Sports like tennis and rugby would love a pyramid like football. It is absolutely brilliant and the wider it is at the bottom, the better it is at the top. But not if the golden goose is stolen for pennies. The system works but if nothing is done then the cancer will form and more clubs will wonder why they are doing it and just get their players off someone else."
It is a route others have gone down, but not Exeter. The club is owned by the fans and this community ethos guides the thinking. The academy is not just for the few who go on to big things. Tagg is a physical education lecturer by trade and the sport-for-all mantra is one he subscribes to. Exeter has a big catchment area. The club is there for the community.
"It is about looking after the 95 per cent who don't make it too," adds Tagg. "If you do that then parents will still be happy and children will come back rather than play for someone else which is what happened back in the day. As soon as you weren't wanted you were discarded. We have addressed that and that's held us in good stead with the community."
Nothing sums up this community spirit more than the identities of the staff at Exeter. The head of the academy is Arran Pugh, a former youth-team player himself. "I remember him here as a 10-year-old boy," says the chairman. Matt Taylor, the manager, was the club's U23 boss. His assistant Wayne Carlisle was once the head of coaching. Everyone gets it.
Few clubs can claim to be as joined-up in their thinking. Exeter are a category-three academy but the aim is for the quality of coaching available to the young players to be as good as anything elsewhere. Former Torquay manager Kevin Nicholson has come in as a coach educator. "We are striving constantly to find that edge," explains Tagg.
"There is a succession planning there that isn't restricted to the academy but what it means is that everyone has a good understanding of how the academy functions. Maybe that's why we have done better than some." Perhaps Moxey will be next to make the now familiar step. "I would love to give something back to the club as a coach," he says.
For now, Moxey is a player in a team that is top of League Two. Neither he nor Archie Collins, the team's two ever-present graduates, have found the net so far this season but when they do so it will spark a different reaction from Tagg. He tries to keep calm when Exeter score. He has seen too much in the game to get carried away. But he does make an exception.
"The day-to-day of life in football can be tough and people know now that I don't jump up during the game if we score," he says. "But when one of our own players like Archie scores, without even thinking about it, I jump up. That's what I get a kick out of." It's the Exeter City way.