Exeter City are on the brink of qualifying from the EFL Trophy group stage after an impressive 4-3 away victory at League One Swindon Town. The Grecians did so with a very youthful side, with boss Matt Taylor handing five academy prospects starts, with an additional five academy hopefuls on the bench – including a handful from the Under 18s.
It’s been a great period for the Exeter City academy, given that its hard work on the likes of Ollie Watkins in years gone by is starting to reap dividends. Watkins’ big-money move from Brentford to Aston Villa has earnt City a cool £4 million from the 15% sell-on clause inserted in his initial £1.8 million switch to Brentford in 2017. Generating almost £6 million from one homegrown product is further proof that the Exeter model is sustainable at League Two level.
Taylor’s young guns prove their worth against higher league opposition
It would appear there are plenty more homegrown starlets waiting in the wings for the Grecians too, after their fearless display at The County Ground. Matt Taylor made no less than 11 changes to the starting XI for the trip to Swindon but three of the academy prospects stepped up to the plate by scoring their first competitive goals for the club against the Robins.
The Grecians boss said in his post-match discussions with the local media that some of those hopefuls may just have played themselves into contention for more senior starts in the league, as well as the EFL Trophy. Taylor said that no-one should “underestimate that performance” based on “the changes we made”. He admitted that some of the younger players were “cramping up” towards the end, such was the effort they had put in on their senior debuts, but he was keen for the players that “had worked so hard” to “stay on at the end of the game”.
Hartridge: Academy prospects are ready for League Two action when needed
City’s young guns could play in League Two without the fear factor
21-year-old defender Alex Hartridge was one of the impressive quintet of youngsters handed a starting berth against Swindon. Hartridge was also interviewed by the press after the game and insisted that he and many of his academy team-mates are pushing hard for regular first team inclusion. Hartridge, who has spent time away from the Grecians on loan at the likes of Truro City and Bath City, believes he and many of his colleagues are capable of “stepping it up and getting the help to [perform] at the higher level”.
Hartridge said that the youngsters selected for the EFL Trophy were acutely aware that the club’s “main priority is the league” and the Swindon game was an opportunity to “put the performances in” to place them in the frame for league action “when required”. There’s no doubt that the Grecians are one of the main contenders for promotion from League Two this year, after falling at the final hurdle in the playoffs earlier in the summer. There has been much speculation over whether City can try again for promotion in 2020/21. The League Two football betting odds have City priced as odds-on favourites to defeat struggling Southend United, and in the outright markets they are third favourites to win the League Two title.
City showed their determination to make their mark on higher league opponents by moving two goals to the good within the opening six minutes at The County Ground. Hartridge admitted that some of the younger contingent “struggled a bit when [Swindon] got [back] into the game and found their rhythm” but it was a testament to their commitment and quality on the ball that they were still able to close out the win by the finest of margins.
The victory over Swindon leaves the Grecians within touching distance of the knock-out stages of the EFL Trophy. City would need to lose by three clear goals to West Brom U21s and see Forest Green Rovers defeat Swindon to fail to progress. For now, all eyes turn back to City’s promotion charge, as Taylor’s men look to build on their seven-point haul from their opening four fixtures.