Matt Oakley has been busy dissecting Liverpool, looking for flaws Exeter can exploit. 'I’ve played at the top and every level, so I understand what players are thinking, ' he says. Photograph: Jim Wileman for the Guardian
As Matt Oakley prepares to face Liverpool for the 17th time in his career, Exeter City’s evergreen 38-year-old can be forgiven for needing a gentle reminder that the first of those meetings took place at Anfield so long ago that John Barnes was lining up against him.
It was December 1995, Oakley was 18, making the second of his 251 Premier League appearances, and Southampton came away with a 1-1 draw. While the memories of that day are a little hazy – much like the 3-2 win at Anfield three years later when Oakley was unable to continue after David James cleaned him out when conceding an early penalty – playing against Liverpool left a deep impression on him in one sense.
“Anfield was the first place where I’d ever seen a crowd influence a game, ” Oakley says. “I remember Liverpool had a spell of play where they were on top, the crowd just went through the roof and I’ve never felt anything like it. It was as if you’d gone deaf. There was this noise going on, I couldn’t communicate with a team-mate five yards away. They were passing the ball with ease, like Liverpool can, and they tore us apart. And I just thought: ‘Oh my God.’ You kind of realised why the home team usually wins. That day at Liverpool was the loudest thing I’d ever heard.”
St James Park is a long way from Anfield in every respect but the Exeter supporters among an 8, 300 sellout crowd will be doing their best on Friday to raise the decibel levels for a classic third-round FA Cup tie and an occasion that has given Oakley, who was in the Southampton side that lost to Arsenal in the 2003 final, plenty to think about.
Long fascinated by analytics in sport as well as psychology, which he hopes to study at university after passing a couple of exams, Oakley is partly responsible for plotting Liverpool’s downfall as the man in charge of preparing the dossiers on Exeter’s opponents. With one eye on the future, the former Southampton, Derby and Leicester midfielder is a player, scout and GCSE student wrapped into one these days.
“I don’t want to go into a coaching role, I don’t get a buzz from that, ” says Oakley, who has clocked up 135 games for Exeter since arriving on loan in 2011 to help out Paul Tisdale, the League Two club’s manager and a former Southampton team-mate. “I like puzzles and I like working things out, so the analysis stuff is something that interests me. I spent a bit of time with Chris Anderson, who wrote the book The Numbers Game, to see how his brain works.
“My thinking is that when I’ve been at clubs we’ve had analysis people doing presentations for games and they’ll show a bit of footage but it’s more computer-techy-university people, not players. I’m not saying they can’t do it and they can’t see it but they don’t get what I think I can give. I guess I’m trying to create a bit of a niche – I’ve played at the top and every level, so I understand what players are thinking.”
Unable to see opponents play live because he is still regularly turning out for Exeter, Oakley receives a report from a scout attending the match and combines their thoughts with his own analysis after watching a full rerun of the game on his computer. He then gives a presentation to Tisdale a couple of days before the match so that they can prepare tactics.
“The beauty of this particular game is we’ve been able to get great footage of Liverpool, ” Oakley says. “But it’s also the first time I’ve had to look at a Premier League team and say: ‘If I’m playing against them, how am I going to break them down?’
“Obviously I tried to do it as a footballer but I was told by someone else. Or, as was the case with a few of my managers, just told to go out and play and get stuck in. So I’ve really enjoyed this, but I’m not going to tell you what I’ve broken down about Liverpool.”
Fresh-faced and still full of running, Oakley looks much younger than his age and it seems remarkable to think he made his debut at Goodison Park at a time when Neville Southall was in goal for Everton. Oakley can still see Anders Limpar delivering a cross that he worried he was going to head into his own net with his first touch in professional football and he also smiles at the memory of Southampton players lighting up cigarettes on the coach on the way home.