It might be a mere footnote in the national football reporting of FA Cup third round day, but there was something ever so touching about the glimpse of young Jay Stansfield greeting his family after his senior debut. The young man, who has had a tough start in life, was almost dragged into the Putney End by his proud relatives following the final whistle – and they had every reason to be delighted with the teenager’s eye-catching cameo that changed the context of what became an enthralling Cup tie.
The Stansfield story is an incredibly personal one. Jay is the eldest son of the lower-league goal grabber, Adam Stansfield, who made a career of being an irritant to centre backs. Shorter than six feet, Stansfield senior posed problems wherever he played, securing promotion to the Football League with Yeovil Town, with whom he also won the FA Trophy, Hereford United and Exeter City. Stansfield went one better with the Grecians, winning promotion to League One, where he scored seven goals before being diagnosed with the colorectal cancer that tragically killed him only four months later.
Stansfield is beloved by Exeter’s fans, who still sing movingly about him at ever game. Their hymns of praise are more than just the recognition of a storied striker because Stansfield was an articulate young man, generous with time and someone who recognised that he was incredibly lucky to earn a living from the beautiful game. I witnessed this first hand as a regular at St. James’ Park when I was at university and also came to rely on Stansfield’s cogent analysis after games as I was compiling match reports and articles as a young sports writer. On one memorable occasion he gave me his thoughts on a particularly physical game as he walked back to his car with no press officer in sight.
Stansfield senior’s memory is more than kept alive these days by a thriving foundation that was founded by his widow Marie, after the idea came to her during his funeral at Exeter Cathedral that drew more than a thousand mourners. It offers opportunities in football for youngsters in Devon, Somerset and Herefordshire, with a particular focus on activities within the game for disabled youngsters, as well as raising awareness of bowel cancer. Such was the impact of the Stansfield foundation that it had raised over £150,000 within four years – and it goes from strength to strength today.
Exeter City deserve far more credit than they have received to date for young Jay’s development. They have raised a respectful and curious young man, with a thirst for the game and a hunger for knowledge, and nurtured his precocious talent into a burgeoning potential that was coveted well beyond Devon. City were rightly miffed when Fulham poached him for relative peanuts this summer – with the then sixteen year old the latest young star to depart for pastures new, following in the footsteps of the likes of Dean Moxey, Matt Grimes and Ethan Ampadu in recent years.
Everyone knew that Fulham had signed a real talent, but Stansfield has blossomed perhaps even beyond their wildest dreams in his five months in south west London. The young man had a steely desire to make it on his own terms and not just benefit from the goodwill that swells through Devon on account of his incredible backstory. He scored on his debut for Fulham’s under 18s and his not stopped since. Stansfield has eighteen goals in eleven under-18 games to date and even scored on his debut for the under 23s against West Ham United in the PL2, bagging a hat-trick against South Shields in the third round of the FA Youth Cup and earning international recognition with England.
His elevation to the senior squad yesterday came as something of surprise, even with Fulham’s recent history of fast-tracking their academy prospects. Stansfield was far from overawed at taking on Premier League opposition and Scott Parker’s decision to introduce him at a point when the Whites were hanging onto a narrow lead offered his side an out ball as well as a genuine threat in the final third they had lacked for much of the afternoon.
Stansfield might be known as a poacher of goals, but he showed in fourteen minutes yesterday that there is much more to his game. His willing runs between James Chester and Bjorn Engels showed an intelligence beyond his tender years as well as a recognition of what was needed to keep Villa honest at a time when they were pressing for an equaliser. He almost made a goal for Anthony Knockaert with a delicious low cross to the back post and might have marked his debut with a goal had Knockaert returned the favour in stoppage time. That emotional moment will come in time, I’m sure – and, given the young striker’s accelerated development, you wouldn’t bet against it arriving sooner rather than later.
You can donate to the Adam Stansfield Foundation here