EXETER frontman Matt Jay is determined to step out of the shadow of his best friend Ollie Watkins and forge his own path to the top of the game.
Until the age of 21, the pair’s careers had followed a similar route. They played for the same Exeter City academy teams, the same school team and even went on loan together to Weston-super-Mare in 2014-15 – the season after both had made their first-team debuts for the Grecians.
But as Watkins’ star rose, Jay had to be patient. Other academy graduates secured moves while Jay struggled to nail down a place in the Exeter side, his versatility perhaps counting against him.
Now, however, the 24-year-old is establishing himself. He started each of City’s first six league games, scoring twice, as he looks to help Matt Taylor’s men make the step up to League One after enough play-off heartache to last a lifetime.
And though he is understandably proud of his old classmate, who burst on to the Premier League scene with a hat-trick in Aston Villa’s 7-2 win over Liverpool earlier this month following his £28m move from Brentford, Jay is keen to begin writing his own story.
“We have shown lots of interest in each other’s careers and we are in constant contact,” he said. “I’m as happy as anyone with his progress and I couldn’t believe it watching the Liverpool game. The sky is the limit for him.
“I’m delighted for everyone that moves on and can see how hard people work to get those opportunities. You have to think ‘why can’t that be me?’. I just need to keep working hard.
“Everyone talks to me about Ollie and I’m delighted for him, of course I am, but I’m concentrating on myself. I really want to kick on, have my own pathway and not live in his shadow.”
Despite only being in his mid-20s, Jay is Exeter’s longest-serving player and is hoping to seize his chance to impress having become a regular fixture in the side.
“I have been wanting to kick on for a number of years but I have not quite had the opportunities to do that,” he said.
“It’s easy to blame other people for that, maybe I have held myself back – but I don’t feel I’ve had loads of opportunities.
“I felt I played really well last year and contributed in the games I played.
“Fingers crossed, I can get a really good run in the team and show people what I can do.
“If I kick on, brilliant, but my main focus is contributing to the team and making sure the manager keeps picking me.”
Jay’s longevity in the Grecians dressing room means he has been at the club throughout the run of three play-off final defeats in four seasons.
The most recent of them came in June’s thumping 4-0 defeat against Northampton in an eerily empty Wembley, with Jay unable to influence things as an unused substitute.
“Last season was hard to take – we were right up there for such a long time in the league campaign,” he added.
“The final is something we all want to forget. With no fans there as well, it was just a bad experience.
“We’d be lying if we said we hadn’t spoken about the times we’ve lost but you can’t dwell on it.
“We are really pushing this year and it’s a season where anything could happen.
“Hopefully we’ll go up automatically and not have to worry about the play-offs – that would be nice!”
PAUL MARTIN / Title image: PPA UK