Latest youngsters off the production line starting to make their mark...

WHEN Exeter City dropped out of The Football League back in 2003, all options were on the table as the club battled crippling debts.

It soon emerged the Grecians were almost £5-million in the red and the club explored a number of cost-cutting measures as they sought to stave off potential liquidation.

One of the avenues debated was to axe the club’s youth system and simply use the transfer market to bolster the squad.

However, bosses had a fierce desire to protect the Academy, viewing the development of young players as the lifeblood of the club.

It would prove one of the wisest decisions ever taken at St James’ Park. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and, when the club plunged into their darkest times, it was hard to see a way out of the turbulent waters.

But the FA Cup ties with Manchester United rescued the Grecians financially and the dawn of a new era was built on the club’s youth system.

Since those tough times some 15 years ago, Exeter have successfully accelerated the development of a steady stream of players who have gone on to bigger and better things.

It seems every season one of Exeter’s young guns is a target for higher League clubs with vast sums of money offered to prise players away from St James’ Park.

George Friend, Dean Moxey and Danny Seaborne are a few of the Academy players who have earned the Grecians six-figure transfer fees having moved on from St James’ Park. Matt Grimes generated the club’s record fee when he was bought by Swansea City for £1.75 million in January 2015.

Ollie Watkins was at the centre of a transfer tug-of-war last season with a number of clubs showing an interest before Brentford won the race to sign him for £1.8-million.

Ethan Ampadu is another City youngster set to earn the League Two club a healthy sum of money following his switch to Premier League champions Chelsea last summer.

Although his fee has yet to be decided by a tribunal, the Grecians are expecting a healthy seven-figure fee for a player who has already made a number of first-team appearances for Antonio Conte’s side and been drafted into the Wales international set-up.

The raft of transfer fees received by the Grecians provides vindication for the decision to keep the club’s youth Academy afloat back in the dark days.

The conveyor belt of young talent looks likely to continue after Jack Sparkes broke into the first-team squad before Jordan Storey was drafted into the first-team.

Sparkes made several starts at the beginning of the season but he has been absent since playing against Chelsea under-21s at the end of November. Yet his time will come.

Meanwhile, Storey – a 20-year-old central defender – made his debut in a 1-0 defeat at Luton last month and delivered an accomplished performance to suggest this could be his breakthrough season.

His first league start at St James’ Park was cut short after he went off injured just before half-time in City’s 1-1 draw with Wycombe Wanderers, having been caught by a stray elbow in an aerial battle with Adebayo Akinfenwa.

He’s not the first to have come off second best at the hands of a player, commonly known as ‘The Beast’, and he certainly won’t be the last.

But Storey bounced back to fire the winner in the recent crucial 1-0 win at Port Vale – a goal which kept Exeter’s top three hopes alive.

Storey has been thrust up the pecking order because of a season-ending injury to skipper Jordan Moore-Taylor and injuries to fellow central defenders Luke Croll and Danny Seaborne.

And despite starting the season as seventh choice central defender, he has been given his chance sooner than expected.

It could turn out to be a blessing in disguise if past experiences of young players at Exeter is anything to go by.

Exeter are back on the road on Good Friday as they prepare for a showdown with promotion rivals Lincoln City.

The Imps are aiming to seal back-to-back promotions having regained their Football League status last season.

The Grecians travel to Sincil Bank on the back of three wins from their last four away games and eager to keep up the pressure on the top three.

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.