Thirteen games in, only an inferior goals-for column keeps Exeter City off the League Two summit. Having finished ninth in May, two places and one point below the hallowed dotted line following successive play-off final defeats at Wembley, they are well versed in fine margins. Like last season, they have made a barnstorming start – Exeter have lost one league game and are a point shy of where they were 12 months ago – but the aim is to go one step further under Matt Taylor this time around.
Depending on which way you look at it, they have either an experienced group sprinkled with homegrown talent or a youthful squad complemented by a series of senior professionals, including Aaron Martin, Lee Martin and Nicky Law, once of Southampton, Manchester United and Rangers respectively. Then there is Dean Moxey, whose career has come full circle having returned to his boyhood club two years ago, a player the highly-rated left wing-back Jack Sparkes grew up watching on the terraces with his dad. “As a little kid, you think: ‘This is where I want to be,’” says Sparkes, 19, who hails from Exmouth and spent last season on loan at Chippenham Town and Salisbury.
For Sparkes, there is no shortage of inspiration. The exterior of the academy offices at the training ground are graffitied with cutouts of former teammates: Ethan Ampadu, Ollie Watkins and Christy Pym, as well as Jordon Moore-Taylor and Moxey. Matt Grimes, once of these parts, is Swansea’s captain, and the defender Jordan Storey joined Preston from Exeter in the summer. Ampadu helped Wales to a point against Croatia in a Euro 2020 qualifier on Sunday and Brentford’s Watkins is among the Championship’s leading goalscorers. Pym is flying high with Peterborough in League One.
Glancing at the academy building, Sparkes says: “You can see up there, the amount of players that have come through. It’s good for the academy as well because it brings confidence to the players coming through. Dean, similar to my position and playing with me now, has really helped me this season; Pymy, I used to be really close with and he helped me a lot; Ethan, I’m really good friends with him and grew up playing with him from about the age of eight; Jordan, and Watkins as well – in different ways they’ve all helped me.”
Sparkes is not the only academy graduate making a dent in the first team, with the 20-year-old Archie Collins also impressing. There are high hopes for Noah Smerdon, signed in the summer via the 1931 Fund, a group of 60 supporters that donates £19 per month towards a player’s wages each season. In August the England Under-15 midfielder Ben Chrisene became the club’s youngest player aged 15 years, seven months and one day, eclipsing a record held by Ampadu. “The academy makes sure your schoolwork comes first, that’s No 1,” says Sparkes. “If you’re not performing in college or when you’re in school during the under-14s, they’ll say: ‘Look, focus on that rather than football for now.’ We had lots of meetings about the importance of having something to fall back on.”
Few know the pathway through to the first team better than Taylor, formerly the club’s under-23s coach. “We try and instil the right values in them from an early age. The academy and the coaches work fantastically well with the young players here to try and improve them. It is probably my job and people in and around the first team to give them that opportunity and believe in them. They are never perfect, the finished article but we give them a secure platform to go and play. The young ones will get the headlines, and rightly so, because they are our products but they are alongside some senior and experienced players.”
For one of those, Lee Martin, who was born up the M5 in Taunton but raised in south London, a return to the south-west last year was welcome. “I’m probably enjoying my football the most I’ve ever done in my career,” he says. “I got a little bit off track in my early 20s, certainly after the move to Ipswich and I lost a lot of confidence and sort of just drifted through.”
It is not only Exeter’s players – young and old – who are flourishing, with Taylor’s reputation as a young coach also burgeoning. Last month the club rejected an approach from Lincoln for Taylor, who spent a chunk of the summer at the Toulon Tournament in France as part of his Uefa Pro Licence course, alongside Michael Carrick, Frank Lampard and Kolo Touré. “People talk about coaches being similar to magpies, where you take the best bits out of other people, but you’re still in your own body and that’s a fantastic phrase for any up-and-coming coaches. You have to get your own experiences but also use what others do every now and then. But you have to be comfortable in your own body and stick to your own principles. We have to keep moving forward and, as a club, we feel we are doing the right things.”
• Forty days after sacking Kevin Bond, Southend are seemingly no closer to finding a manager after a deal to appoint Henrik Larsson collapsed at the 11th hour. The Southend chairman, Ron Martin, was confident of appointing Larsson and his former Celtic teammate Johan Mjallby by Thursday but said the “last-minute” breakdown in talks was because Tommy Johnson, who had been in talks over a head of recruitment role, “accepted an alternative offer”. Larsson, who attended Southend’s matches against Accrington and MK Dons, told Sportbladet: “I was ready to sit on a plane, fly over and sign on.” Southend are seven points adrift of safety in League One.
• If Peterborough, determined to escape League One at the sixth attempt, fail to win promotion, it is unlikely to be owing to a shortage of firepower. No player has scored more league goals this season than Ivan Toney (10), and Mo Eisa has nine and Marcus Maddison six for Darren Ferguson’s side.
• Reading’s manager, Mark Bowen, has said he was “stunned” to be offered the job in the midst of shortlisting candidates to succeed José Gomes in his previous role as the club’s sporting director. “It was put to me that the least obtrusive way of doing things was: ‘Would you like the job?’” Bowen’s first game in charge is against third-placed Preston on Saturday.