Five years ago, Exeter City’s Cheick Diabate was preparing for the ‘game of his life’ at the EFL Exit Trials.
Aged 16, the young defender was released by Stevenage, and seemingly with no pathway back into the game, he was put forward for the Trials where he would catch the eye of the Grecians.
“Unfortunately, I got released after I picked up an injury,” he said. “It was gutting. I saw other players getting scholarships – people I go to school with – and when you’re that age, as a young footballer, getting a scholarship is the biggest thing in your life. At school, if you had a scholarship at a professional Club, you were the guy.
“They said they were putting my name down for the Exit Trials. I had an idea of what it was and they told me, ‘We feel that if you go, another Club will pick you up.’ I was looking forward to it and getting ready for it, training by myself and going to the gym.”
Taking place this week, the EFL Exit Trials give teenage footballers, aged between 15 and 16 who have been released by their previous Club, a second chance to make it as a professional footballer.
With scouts from across the country in attendance across three venues, participants feature in the hope of being taken on as a scholar and eventually getting that professional contract.
“It’s nerve-wracking because you’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to impress, and I’ve got to perform,’” Diabate recalled. It’s also excitement as well because you know if you do impress, good stuff can happen from it. It was a mixture of both. I saw a couple of my ex-teammates there as well.
“You play games and a lot of scouts come to watch you, and any team that’s interested in you gets your contact afterwards. It was quite a good experience.”
Not 10 minutes after getting back in his car to drive home, the Grecians’ former Head of Academy Recruitment picked up the phone.
“On the way back home, Dan Kelly from Exeter City called my mum. He was saying, ‘We’re interested in Cheick coming down for a trial.’
“It wasn’t expected. It was of those moments I’ll never forget. Me and my mum were in the car and we answered the call like, ‘Who’s this?’ She looked at me with confusion in her face.
“I thought they’d contact us a week or two after the Trials, but literally it was less than an hour after the Trials. That’s a good feeling because that makes you feel like this Club really wants you, and they think you’re a good player that’s got a lot of potential.”
After heading down to Devon for a trial period, Diabate opted to sign for the Club three days later.
“I’m 21 now and I’ve been here since I was 16,” he said. “I came here as someone who had nothing. When I didn’t get my scholarship, I was asking myself, ‘What’s next?’ It’s quite scary when you’re doing your GCSEs as well and you don’t know what pathway you want to go down in life.”
The 21-year-old made his mark on the first team in 2021/22, making his breakthrough as the Grecians won promotion to Sky Bet League One.
🎶 CHEICK DIABATE, HE’S ONE OF OUR OWN 😍 #ECFC #OneGrecianGoal pic.twitter.com/7F44Kuyqr2— Exeter City FC (@OfficialECFC) February 8, 2022
Diabate, who made his bow in a 4-0 win over West Bromwich Albion in an EFL Trophy tie in November 2020, was rewarded with his full debut in January last year and has since established himself in the first-team fold.
“I didn’t know where Exeter was; being from South London, I only knew the London area basically,” he added. “I went home, did a bit of research and it looked like a very good Club for young players.
“At the time, Ethan Ampadu went to Chelsea and everyone was talking about that. When I saw his name, I was attracted straightaway. I saw the likes of Ollie Watkins as well and George Friend. I saw that they give their youth opportunities and that’s one of the philosophies at the Club. That’s the main reason Exeter was my top choice.”
In the summer, he put pen to paper on a new deal which sees Diabate extend his stay at St James Park until the end of the 2023/24 season.
“It’s a test of your character, your resilience and your perseverance, but I think I showed all of that,” he explained. “All of that has paid off now.”