AT THE start of the 2013-14 season, Tom Nichols was in danger of becoming Exeter City’s forgotten man. But, after a sensational performance in Saturday’s 3-2 win at Accrington Stanley, he is now the Grecians’ main man.
The 20-year-old City youth product scored twice, won a penalty and played a key role in the Grecians picking up their first win in nine against one of the division’s in-form side’s right now.
It was no more than Exeter deserved for a devastating counter-attacking display that saw them lead 3-0 after 24 minutes. To their credit, Accrington gave it a right go and pulled two goals back, but despite having time on their side, they ran out of steam as City held on for a much-needed League Two win.
Come full-time, though, it was the name of Nichols that had people talking. This was a display that belied his tender years. He showed what a classy finisher he is with two outstanding goals, but other aspects of his play were equally as good.
Playing as a lone striker is never an easy job, but Nichols occupied Stanley’s two centre-halves, Tom Aldred and Dean Winnard, all afternoon. His intelligent runs had them running in directions they did not want to go in, while they found him a physical threat as well. It is a real turnaround in the fortunes of a young man whose career in the game perhaps looked bleak not so long ago.
Nichols first came to prominence as a 17-year-old debutant in an end-of-season win at Sheffield Wednesday in May 2011. He then notched the winner a day before his 18th birthday in a win over Chesterfield early the next season but, since then, he has rarely featured for the Grecians.
Only Nichols and those close to him know the true reasons for that, but manager Paul Tisdale has shown great patience with the Wellington-born youngster, who has been a star of the club’s Under-21 side this year. He has worked hard on the uglier side of his role for the team, performed when he has needed to, and that sheer hard work and dedication is now paying off with a chance in the first team.
Nichols has had to be more patient than most, but you can see in his eyes a steely determination to grasp the opportunity he now has. For weeks now, Exeter have not always clicked in attack and posed the goal threat they did in the early stages of the campaign. All the while, Nichols was scoring goals for the reserves and Under-21 side and catching the eye with his busy and hard-working performances.
Physically, he has changed so much as well. Gone is the puppy fat that clung to the cheeks of that 17-year-old protégé, replaced by the muscle of a honed sportsman.
His progress is reminiscent of former City striker Jamie Mackie, and Nichols’ game is similar too. If he can continue to progress, then Nichols will also give himself every chance of going far in the game because he has the attributes of a top striker. And, with that experience of time out of the first-team picture following his debut at a young age, then perhaps he is mentally right for an extended run.
There is still more to come, although the fact he did not quite last the full 90 minutes was more down to the shift he had put in rather than concerns about his fitness, and it should be remembered that this was Nichols’ fourth game in two weeks as well, after he played a goalscoring cameo role against Bury, and then two 90-minute reserve performances against Plymouth and Yeovil.
Nichols’ inclusion was the clearest sign yet that the tide is turning quickly at St James’ Park, with manager Paul Tisdale giving his youngsters the chance they crave. Five of the starting XI on Saturday – Nichols, Scot Bennett, Jordan Moore-Taylor, Liam Sercombe and Matt Grimes – were graduates of the club’s Academy, with two more, Christy Pym and Jake Gosling, on the bench. And, in the absence of captain Danny Coles, it was notable to see the skipper’s armband worn by Bennett.
Tisdale has always said he will only play the kids when the time is right and after a run of eight games without a win, that time had come.
City stormed out of the traps and went ion front on six minutes. Moore-Taylor’s headed clearance seemed pretty innocuous, but Nichols turned it into a goalscoring chance with his clever run. He still had plenty to do, wide on the left and some 25 yards from goal, but, having spotted goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli way off his line, Nichols chipped a delightful effort with his left-foot over his head and into the net.
Five minutes later, it was 2-0. Sercombe’s incisive pass was flicked into the path of Nichols by Gow and the youngster finished emphatically from 15 yards.
Gow added a third by turning and firing a superb shot from 18 yards inside Bettinelli’s near post, which caught the ’keeper unaware, but that was far from the end of the drama.
The ease in which Peter Murphy and Kai Naismith reduced the arrears to 3-2 with unmarked headers will have Tisdale frowning, but even then City should have killed the game off when Nichols was fouled in the box by Lee Naylor.
Gow’s spot-kick was superbly saved by Bettinelli, diving to his left, while City were indebted to Artur Krysiak for a stunning double save to preserve their slender lead late in the game and ensure the Grecians held on for the most welcome of wins.