Exeter City forward Jay Stansfield has been named the EFL Young Player of the Month for October. He is the first Exeter player to win the award since Ollie Watkins in March 2016, as the Grecians continue to climb the Sky Bet League One table.
The on-loan Fulham striker, who came through Exeter’s academy as a youngster, returned to the Club on a season-long loan deal in August. It was a move that caught the attention of the footballing world at the time, not least because Stansfield was returning to his former Club where he joined the Academy at eight years old, but because it is the cCub where his father, Adam, who died aged 31, also has a stand named after him.
But even without the emotive story behind his return to St James Park, Stansfield would still be the outstanding young player of the EFL through October.
The 19-year-old scored four goals and provided a further two assists in seven games during the month, as Exeter continue to impress in League One following promotion last season.
“It’s the first trophy I’ve won in my career,” Stansfield says, speaking to the EFL. “To win it is purely down to hard work.
“I’ve said a couple of times that I found it challenging at the start and adapting to League One football. It was tough but once I got my first goal I knew as a striker I’d get my confidence back and build on it from there. My confidence is high at the moment and that’s down to hard work and the teammates I’ve got around me.”
Stansfield’s four October goals showcased the range of his ability, from a poacher's tap-in against Barnsley to the technical precision of his instinctive strikes against Charlton Athletic and Fleetwood Town.
“It’s been quite a rollercoaster since I joined the Club,” he adds. “Obviously having a new manager come in midway through the first month that I was here was hard, but both managers have had confidence in me and that’s been really important.
"Being able to be myself and play with freedom has given me confidence. Coupled with the team making me feel welcome and encouraging me to be the best I can be, it’s all working out nicely so far.”
When the news broke of Stansfield’s loan deal on deadline day, the excitement among the footballing world was evident. The season-long loan deal saw him “home” to the Club he supported as a child - the Club in which he came through the academy and the club his father made more than 100 appearances for.
“Obviously the name Stansfield is well known around Exeter, but I didn’t really think about that too much at the time to be honest with you. I had a call from the previous manager, Matt Taylor, and I know Matt really well so it just felt right to come here for my first loan spell.
"It was more about the football for me. I wanted to play regularly, score goals and experience proper game time and I knew coming out on loan was the best thing for me and Exeter was the right choice.”
With a stand named after him at St James Park and fans who still proudly sing his name, former Exeter striker - and father to Jay - Adam Stansfield is never far from the memory of all those connected with the Club.
Having passed away from bowel cancer 12 years ago, nothing could be a more compelling tribute to Adam than his son Jay returning to his hometown club and accepting the No.9 shirt, 12 years after Exeter retired it following Adam’s tragic death.
But now Exeter fans have a new Stansfield - and a new No.9 - to cheer each week.
“That was actually the Club’s idea,” Stansfield continues. “The manager offered it to me and then it was down to me to decide. Playing regular first-team football can bring a lot of pressure anyway, without adding extra pressure from the past and having the No.9 shirt, so I did think about it carefully but I also thought it was the right thing to do.
“I really respect what the club has done for me previously so taking the No.9 shirt just felt right.
“Of course, I’ve made Fulham my home since moving, but Exeter is also home to me. This is where my family live and it was really important to me to find an environment I was comfortable in while being out on loan.
“First loan spells can be quite tough and I’ve been lucky enough to come to a Club where I’m not only going to get game time, but I’m able to settle in quickly too. And not only that, you’ve seen the players that have come through Exeter and the Academy and the young players that excel here. It felt like the perfect fit.”
As he stepped off the bench in the 79th minute to make his debut against MK Dons in September, emotions were raw. With the St James Park crowd chanting his name, Stansfield was given the warmest of receptions.
“I can’t lie it was quite weird, but obviously quite emotional too,” he adds. “Not just for me, but for everyone at the Football Club I think. The fans were amazing; the reception I got when making my debut was surreal. It was a really special feeling and one I probably won’t ever get again.”
And although it may not have been the perfect start for Stansfield who, by his own admission, found it “challenging” in his first few games, more recently the loan move is starting to look like the perfect fit he describes.
His first goals for the Club came in October, when he netted twice in a 2-0 victory over Barnsley, and were followed by goals against Charlton Athletic and Fleetwood Town, before contributing two assists for both his side’s goals in the recent Devon derby against Plymouth Argyle.
“That first goal was a really special moment for me. In the first couple of games I struggled a bit but the team and the manager stuck by me and had faith in me to deliver, so for me to get my first goal for the Club and then get another in the same game was really special, for me and my family.
“The Argyle game, although we lost, was probably a highlight for me too. Growing up, coming through the Academy and supporting Exeter City, that’s the game you want to play in. Argyle is a big derby and playing in that game is something I won’t forget.”
Stansfield’s Premier League debut for Fulham came against Wolves in August, with his first start coming a week later in their victory over Brentford.
“I was working really hard in pre-season before the loan move came along,” he says. “We were in discussion about whether it was the right time for me to go out on loan or not, but because of a few injuries I started the season with Fulham and got to make my debut.
“It was an amazing moment and I think it just motivated me even more to want to play as much football as possible and showed me what I could achieve if I put my mind to it and keep working hard. That’s when we made the decision for me to go out on loan.”
And so, with player development and first-team football the priority for Stansfield, an agreement was reached with Exeter - who do it better than most - for Stansfield to complete his homecoming.
Ollie Watkins and Ethan Ampadu both began their careers with the Grecians and there will likely be many more to come.
“That’s one of the main reasons we chose Exeter. It was as much a football decision as anything.
"It takes time to get used to playing competitive football, it’s very different to playing in the Under-21s. This is men’s football and League One is a brilliant standard, but getting that experience playing against different teams, playing with different types of players and getting consistent playing time is really important for me as a young player.
“The aim is to go back to Fulham a more mature and better player. I’m learning a lot every day and Exeter has always had a really good reputation for that.”
What is clear throughout is not only Stansfield’s love for his hometown Club, but his love for the game itself and desire to improve.
He concludes: “When you come through the Academy of a club, the main aim is to obviously get into the first team so for me to come back and be able to do that here at Exeter, knowing that I still had a sense of loyalty to the Club and a passion for the Club because I supported them when I was younger, it’s made it all extra special.
“Exeter has a special place in my heart and it always will, not just because of my background and the family connections, but because I started my career here. I’m really enjoying my football, I’m enjoying the competitiveness of the division and I just want that to continue.”