There are two sides to every story. As a substituted Dele Alli threw a water bottle to the floor before providing the same treatment to his boots, Ethan Ampadu was enjoying applause from the pocket of RB Leipzig fans at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, writes Tom Howe.
In only his seventh appearance for the German high-flyers, the 19-year-old Wales international kept out everything Spurs had to throw at him during Wednesday’s Champions League Round of 16 first leg tie, helping Leipzig return for the home game with a crucial 1-0 away goal advantage.
The appearance came just three-and-a-half years after Ampadu made his senior debut for boyhood club Exeter City, during which he played the entire 120 minutes of a 1-0 EFL Cup win over Brentford aged just 15 years, ten months and 26 days.
After only 13 senior shows for the Grecians, the son of former Exeter coach Kwame was snapped up by Premier League giants Chelsea, going on to become the youngest player to debut for the club in over ten years before being allowed to join Leipzig and further cut his teeth in the beautiful game.
Speaking exclusively to The Independent, Arran Pugh, Exeter’s academy operations manager, recalled when Ampadu first arrived at St James’ Park as a fresh faced youngster with a talent and character far beyond his years.
“I saw Ethan come in as a seven-year-old,” he said. “He spent a lot of his time at the academy playing up an age group. That is one of the things we have done on numerous occasions with quite a few of the boys who have done well.
“As a seven-year-old playing for the under-nines, he still stood out as a promising talent. I saw his development through from there into the first team at 15 and moving onto Chelsea.
“He is the most humble kid you can imagine. Our academy is there to produce football players but one of the biggest things we pride ourselves on and is really important to us right throughout the football club is producing good people as well. That is key to everything that we do.
“It is about manners, doing things right, working as hard as they can, showing positive reactions. If you are looking for somebody that epitomises that and is the perfect role model, Ethan was that kid right the way through.”
Ampadu has kicked on this season, ditching the trademark locks of hair for more hard work as he fights for glory across two fronts in Saxony, with Leipzig keen on a first Bundesliga crown having already reached the Champions League round of 16 for the very first time.
Chances were hard to come by at first as the defensive minded Ampadu, signed on a season-long loan deal, adapted to his new surroundings, moving to Germany at the tender age of 18.
Pugh, however, had no doubts as to the nine-time Wales international’s credentials, saying: “One of the reasons that Ethan has done so well, and our other young players in general, is that our club is built around giving young people opportunities. I am sure there are a lot of other academies out there doing some really good work but if there is no pathway then there is no end goal.
“Julian Tagg (chairman) has had a vision for a number of years and the whole club is so supportive of the Academy. The managers that have been in charge have bought into that. Ethan playing as a 15-year-old, not many clubs would give an opportunity to do that.
“Don’t get me wrong, Ethan deserved it and once he was given the opportunity he took his chance. He looked like a 30-year-old because of how calm and composed he was. He does the simple things really well and that stood out.
“We are all delighted to have seen him play in the Champions League. He is the first boy from the academy to have played Champions League football and hopefully there will be a few more in the future. It is a massive achievement for Ethan and he fully deserves it.”
Pugh continued painting his picture by saying: “He was in Exeter over the winter break and came over to train three or four times on the 3G. He spent time talking to our staff and some of the younger lads. He is such an approachable lad who always remembers where he has come from.”
Ampadu’s is just one of a number of success stories to come out of the Devon club’s Academy, with the likes of Jordan Storey (Preston North End), George Friend (Middlesbrough), Matt Grimes (Swansea City) and Ollie Watkins (Brentford) having passed through the system to name but a few.
“It is a massive team effort,” said Pugh. “The biggest thing is, you have a club here that supports the academy right from the very top. There have been a number of people over a number of years who have come together. We have a vision and everyone has played their part.
“We are very lucky to have some really talented players but also some really talented staff. A number of those guys have moved on to bigger and better things as well, working with the likes of England.
“That opportunity is there for the staff to have an input. We try to use each person’s expertise and allow them to manage their own affairs within the overall vision. It is really important that you let people use their skills and don’t have somebody dictating.”
There was a strong Academy influence on Tuesday night when Exeter suffered the heartbreak of two injury time goals which resulted in a 3-2 EFL Trophy semi-final defeat to League One Portsmouth, the current holders.
“We had five Academy lads on the pitch, three of them had started and played really well against a Portsmouth team that had only made three changes from their League One side the previous weekend.
“I was gutted for the boys at the end but that is another fantastic example of the manager trusting those boys to go and play a semi-final with Wembley around the corner.
“He could have played a lot of the more senior lads but he trusted the younger ones that got the club to that point.
“When Paul Tisdale left, Matt Taylor was put in charge and he had already worked as under-23s coach. A large part of his work was with the first team but he was also around the Academy.
“Wayne Carlisle is his assistant, he was our head of coaching for two years, and is a fantastic person to have around.
“Dan Green is the under-23s and first team coach who started as a part-time under-nines coach. All of the full-time first team coaching staff have worked in the academy in the past so really value the boys.”