The sight of David Wheeler breezing past defenders is a familiar one to Lewes fans, and one that Exeter supporters have also grown used to seeing during the 23-year-old wingers flying start to his time at the League Two club. In this exclusive interview Wheeler reveals how he signed for ‘The Grecians’ and what the differences are between professional and semi-pro football, as well as discussing his time at Brunel University and how it helped him develop both on and off the pitch.
Brought up and educated in Lewes, Wheeler became a fans favourite during his spell with the Rooks which began in 2007 following his release from Brighton and Hove Albion. During his time at the Dripping Pan he earned trials at several clubs including Southampton, whose academy is famous for producing talented youngsters like Gareth Bale, Alan Shearer and Theo Walcott. But it was during Wheelers time with Staines Town that he was spotted by Dagenham & Redbridge and Exeter, training with both before the latter eventually signed him. But how did these opportunities arise? Wheeler explained “There was this guy I’d played against a few times, he plays for Bath, and he’d played for Bristol and Exeter [in league football] and he called me after one of the games I played against Bath. He said ‘I think you’re capable of playing at a higher level, would you like a trial at Exeter?’ That’s how it came about, on [his] recommendation and I went down for the trials. I was at Dagenham for five days and it was a good experience, it enabled me to compare the two teams”.
Despite signing with Exeter just a day before the start of the new season Wheeler went straight into the opening day line-up, and his performances were so impressive over the next few weeks that he won the fans player of the month award for August. Wheeler was also popular with Lewes and Staines supporters and he spoke of the benefits of having the fans onside, revealing “Obviously it makes life a lot easier when fans aren’t getting on your back! It’s nice to know you’re well thought of. I can imagine it being even more stressful if the fans aren’t behind you on match days. I’m not really sure what I’ve done to deserve it [the support] but I’ve been quite lucky”.
The midfielder was also keen to stress the differences between league and non-league football, and when asked what stood out he immediately highlighted the physical side of the game. “Pretty much everyone is fitter, stronger and sharper and I think that just comes from training every day”. Wheeler added “One of the main differences is the care players take on the ball. It’s very rare you see someone pass it off the pitch accidently or have a bad touch three yards in front of them. If you make mistakes like that you get punished a lot more [at this level]. It’s also a lot more thorough and a lot more tactical. The managers seem to have more influence on the game in League Two than they do in the Conference South, and players seem to know what they’re doing and where they should be a bit more”. Wheeler also praised the impact veteran players such as Matt Oakley and Sam Parkin have on the squads’ younger members. “It’s like an education every day [playing with them]. Watching them play, they’re doing the right things all the time. They’re always there to give you advice and pretty much all of them have helped me out with my game”.
One thing that sets Wheeler aside from the majority of professional footballers is his education. After his release by Brighton he was able to attend Sussex Downs Sixth Form College in Lewes as a full-time student, before later enrolling at Brunel University in Middlesex. When asked about the impact his education has had on his career Wheeler was unequivocally positive about his experiences. He said “It’s helped me become much more of a rounded person. It’s made me form ideas and opinions that perhaps if I’d stayed in football I wouldn’t have. Obviously you get to meet a lot of different people with different interests, and you have to learn to look after yourself, cook for yourself and do all the household chores. It definitely gives you perspective on what’s important. Football is stressful at times, particularly if you’re not playing very well, and if you’re playing every day you get immersed in it. It can get you down when it feels like the only thing you’ve got, whereas I think having been to University it helps you with putting life in perspective”. So would he recommend the same path to others who are in a similar situation to the one he was in after Brighton let him go? “Definitely. Just in the sense that you know after your career’s finished there are other options. You find out you’re good at other things and not just football. You can go into other areas. I think it’s a good thing in terms of psychological health because you know your whole self isn’t defined by just how good you are at football”.
Unfortunately for Wheeler, although the overall University experience was positive for him the decision to move so far from home meant that he had to make a choice about where his footballing future lay. During his first year he continued to play for Lewes, but he admitted “I probably stayed a year longer than I should have done”. He added “It was difficult [to commute]. I probably should have gone for footballing and practical reasons. I didn’t because of the sentiment I had for the club, I had a really good time there and they’re the main reason I recovered from being let go by Brighton. I owed a lot to the club, particularly individuals like Steve Ibbotson and Jason Hopkinson. Ibbo wanted me to stay on for another season and I felt that I owed it to him”. However despite eventually moving on the 23-year-old was keen to stress just how important the club had been to his development as a footballer, saying he “couldn’t have asked for anything better” after he left Brighton, while also praising the coaches for “keeping standards high despite financial difficulties and poor facilities”.
It’s easy to forget that Wheeler is only 23 when you consider what he’s already accomplished. 113 appearances for Lewes. 90 for Staines. He’s already turned out 13 times for Exeter and he has a degree under his belt to top it all off. After a fast start to the current campaign you could forgive him for being a little complacent, but that isn’t the case. “I’m just trying to stay in the team at the moment by training hard every day. We’ve got such a good squad that I’m having to fight for my place. At the moment I’m just looking to improve my skills and technique in training every day and trying to get the start every week”. He’s also positive about ‘The Grecians’ chances of maintaining their form in the league. “I’ve had season after season after season where I’ve been at the wrong end of the table, so it’s definitely refreshing to be at the opposite end for a change. Obviously it’s still early days but I get the feeling we could reach the play-offs. There’s different sorts of pressures now, rather than worrying about relegation you’re trying to keep your standards as high as possible”.
Not all footballers are given a second chance to make a living out of the game. But then again there aren’t many players who’ve benefited from the experience of higher education. David Wheeler is a unique footballer, and having worked hard to get to this point it’s clear that he isn’t about to let his latest opportunity pass him by.
With thanks, all photographs are courtesy of Exeter City Football Club.