The current climate of English football makes life difficult for professional, fan-owned clubs.
The Premier League continues to grow as a global brand, meaning wages become inflated, which trickles down the divisions. Any increase in income that EFL clubs have received, especially below the Championship, is disproportionate with the increase in demands.
Mismanaged fallen giants have crashed into the lower divisions in recent years from one end, with Sunderland offering up 38k gates in League One and Bradford City around 15k in League Two. From the other end, Salford City and Wrexham, backed by celebrity owners, can make offers to dwarf those of their competitors – the latter are not even in the EFL yet, but could sign the 32-goal top scorer from the division above, Paul Mullin, last summer.
All this makes one question whether there is room for fan-owned clubs in the modern professional game, whether the advantage of having board members who have cared passionately about the club from birth comes close to counter-balancing the disadvantage of the lack of external investment.
And yet, having secured promotion to League One by beating Barrow on Tuesday night, Exeter City are telling the football world that the answer to both those questions is an emphatic yes.
Here’s how they do it.
Thirteen of the 34 players who have featured for the Grecians in all competitions this season have come through the academy.
For many clubs, it’s ideal in theory to be able to have 38 per cent of the squad cherry-picked internally, because it means that while youth products of course take up a wage, they will typically not cost as much as a senior player relocating to the area.
And, for those who are on a good salary, it’s because they bring proven value to the side, like Archie Collins and Josh Key for example. However, Exeter’s competitors lack the conviction at times to bring these players through and give them first-team opportunities in high-pressure matches.
On top of this, City have excellent management at different age groups: Chad Gribble and Dan Green do marvellous work as Under-18s and Under-23s coaches respectively. When players show progression in these sides, sometimes they will come into the fray straight away – Collins was a regular at 18 – but more often the club can turn to their network of local non-league clubs.
Ten of them, including Truro City, Tiverton Town and Taunton Town have done 15 loan deals with Exeter this season between them. Some of those exchanges have been made as part of a long-term progression plan, with the aim being to give these players regular games in the hope of them growing to become an Exeter player.
Key and Alex Hartridge, for example, were on loan at Truro and Tiverton respectively in 2018-19 and three years down the line are among City’s best assets.
Conversely, Joel Randall spent parts of 2019-20 on loan to Weston-super-Mare and Weymouth before being recalled to first-team training in January that season: 18 months on, he’d gone to Championship club Peterborough United for a seven-figure fee.
It was another meteoric rise for Cheick Diabate, who went to Southern League Premier Division South (eighth-tier) side Truro in the first half of this season, then spent the second half of the campaign with Exeter, and has been a key part of their outstanding defensive record in League Two.
In fact, the Grecians have recorded a whopping nine clean sheets in the 16 league games he has played in, having kept the same number in 28 outside those encounters.
Paul Wotton at Truro, Rob Dray at Taunton, Jerry Gill at Bath City and Scott Bartlett at Weston are all managers whom Exeter boss Matt Taylor can go to and trust to nurture his squad’s most precocious talents.
Exeter are very loyal to managers.
City have changed boss just once since 2006, and that was when Paul Tisdale chose to depart for Milton Keynes Dons in 2018.
Tisdale was a controversial figure towards the end of his time with the Devon club, and some grew frustrated with a lack of outward emotion, recognition for supporters or ability to summarise games in a way that tallied with the fan perspective. However, the values ‘Tis’ has imprinted on the club are stability, sustainability and big-picture thinking.
Exeter still hold those ideals, even though they now have a manager who is more outwardly passionate, more open, more honest and better at concisely reviewing a match without natives wondering if they watched the same game.
Taylor has done a good job at St James Park and thoroughly deserves the faith he has been shown, having had his team in contention in each of his four seasons in charge – and getting over the line this term.
And yet near-misses on the top seven sandwiched a play-off humiliation against Northampton Town in 2020, and there will have been various points at which some fans might have called for change. Even a couple of times this term, a minority would have asked questions – three wins in 12 at the start of the campaign, or one point from a possible five over early-winter – it’s only in the second half of the season that Exeter have come to the boil.
Because the managerial situation has never been in any doubt, Taylor has had the time to eradicate the weak underbelly that has seen his side fall short in previous seasons without interrupting the steady flow of young players coming into the squad.
Supporters were promised a big budget last summer, with the club having successfully navigated the pandemic and having money left over from their £4.2 million cut of Ollie Watkins’ move from Brentford to Aston Villa.
With that in mind, some City fans were expecting marquee additions, yet this wasn’t what they got.
Wide man Josh Coley was poached from non-league Maidenhead United, Jevani Brown was signed after a tough couple of seasons, Sam Nombe had endured an injury-interrupted period, Aston Villa’s Callum Rowe had not played a senior game bar a brief loan at Hereford, while Jonathan Grounds and Timothee Dieng had just experienced relegation.
Underwhelming? Perhaps, to some, but sometimes the value is in finding the context behind a player’s recent history. Dieng, for example, had suffered back-to-back relegations with Southend United, but he was a powerful, combative presence in that Shrimpers side: he simply suffered from not having the quality around him.
The midfielder is having a much better time of things in a superior side, and has been arguably Player of the Year for Exeter this term – a rival to Cameron Dawson, a goalkeeper on loan from Sheffield Wednesday.
The moral of the story is that while fans can of course have a say on the types of players the club brings in, and can have an instant reaction to signings on the face of things, there has to be some trust in the manager.
They are the ones spending hours trawling through highlights, making calls for references on players and looking at the stats to make sure that once the club commits to this deal, they are confident with the information they have that it’s the best possible deal for the club.
Taylor might not have pulled off too many obvious coups last summer, but he has added shrewdly and astutely: even more impressive.
Sustaining in League One
Making the step up to League One, Exeter can take lessons from Crewe Alexandra.
With an exciting core of academy products, the Railwaymen achieved an impressive top-half finish in their debut campaign at that level, but once they lost those six players it all came to a head and the Alex have crashed to a bottom-placed finish this term. Exeter, though, have the wherewithal to avoid that particular pitfall, because of their strength in the negotiation process.
While undisclosed fees make exact figures difficult to clarify, the indications are that when City sell an academy product, it’s almost always a straight seven-figure fee.
The exceptions would be Ethan Ampadu and Ben Chrisene, for whom significant sell-on percentages were agreed, 20% in the former case, which puts City in line for another big seven-figure fee.
When Exeter sell a player, there are always a set of clauses based on the success of the player in question – club and country appearances, for example - which the buying club do not mind agreeing to because they are only paying it if the player in question progresses as hoped. As a result of that, City can re-invest that money, partly in the playing squad but also in the infrastructure, including senior and youth training facilities, the stadium, the match-day experience and the staff.
If Exeter keep smart, intelligent lifelong fans who put the club’s long-term interests before anything else at the heart of the club, they can get by without one or two individuals pumping big money in. And while City could achieve greater on-field success with more external investment, in some respects it would mean less if they did.
Fan-owned status is like a badge of honour in this corner of Devon and, at a time when football is seen to be moving further away from working people, Exeter are moving it back closer for those willing to look outside the elite.
A sign in front of the Big Bank at St James Park proudly reads: “We own our football club”. And right now, their football club owns it, too.