Amid all of the recent doom and gloom surrounding the dearth of new signings while at the same time losing several experiences players at Coventry City, there as been one, often overlooked success story.
The Academy managed by Gregor Rioch has provided Andy Thorn with 12 players in the current squad. In these times of financial straights at the club, it has proved both necessary and beneficial to utilise the Academy system and some of those young players have grasped the opportunity to prove to the club and the world what they have to offer.
With a squad reduced in size from last year as a result of players not offered contracts, seeking transfers and though injury , Andy Thorn had no choice but to call on the services of youngsters like Gael Bigirimana, Cyrus Christie and Conor Thomas.
Prior to these players being given their chance this season, players such as Jordan Clarke and Nathan Cameron had their opportunities last season.
It is a proud achievement by Gregor Rioch to see his protégés in the senior side, especially as the current under 18 side is doing so well at the start of their own season.
Rioch said to the CT: “There are ten in and around the first team who have come through the Academy. If you add McSheffrey that’s 11, Ben Turner was 12 and Roy O’Donovan, who has come back to the club, is 13, so to have that many come through is a great success for the club.”
The opportunities available to the Academy players are acting as an incentive and when they arise they are being grabbed with relish.
“Jordan Clarke got injured in the pre-season and it has provided an opportunity for Cyrus,” said Rioch. “We talk about the word opportunity a lot at the Academy and when it comes round you have to be ready and prepared to take it."
“You have to have trained hard enough and he’s grabbed it because if he hadn’t looked after himself in the summer and pre-season he wouldn’t have been ready, but I’ll tell you what he and Gael did, they came back and were on the leader board of all the fitness sessions in pre-season."
“He’s got a good head on his shoulders, he’s intelligent and doesn’t get too emotional or erratic – he just gets on with it and the experience he has gained in the first six games has been like a year’s worth of experience for him.”
Burundi born Gael Bigirimana (Pictured below) is the player who has grabbed his opportunity and has impressed all by his performances on the field that have belied his tender age and lack of experience.
Rioch enthused, “He’s been confident like that on the pitch ever since he came in. Off the field you will not meet a nicer lad. He is a real thinker of the game and it is not often that you can say of a 17-year-old that they know the game."
"He has an incredible football intelligence for someone so young and his ability has never been in doubt. We have always believed in Gael and the only concern we had about him was the physical side of it, although we knew he would get there when he turned into a man, but what he has done is allow his football to take away the concerns about the physical element."
“His first touch is so good that it doesn’t become physical but he can mix it as well. He’s got no fear and is exceptionally talented with a football and the great thing about Gael is that if he makes a mistake he won’t hide, he goes looking for the ball again because he believes in his own ability that much that he knows he can get on the ball."
“As time goes on there is more to come from both of them because they are only 17 or 18.”
While the younger Academy players have grabbed the headlines, there are also some older Academy players ready to emerge into the big time.
Forwarders Callum Wilson and Shaun Jeffers have not been give the opportunities of their younger colleagues, but Rioch in not concerned and refutes suggestions that they are being left behind and points out that is is more usual for Academy graduates to break into the senior side when aged around 20 to 21.
He explained, “The oldest boys we have got that have come through the Academy are 20 and for a Championship club you are looking for your 21 and 22-year-olds to be regulars.”
“Ben Turner didn’t break in until he was 20 and then only became a regular at 21 and sometimes we see lads come on the scene and think they should be regulars, but they need time to develop."
“So if you look at the likes of Jeffers and Wilson, I still class them as ones to come through, while Conor Thomas, Josh Ruffels and Aaron Phillips are in and around the first-team squad now.”
Despite losing many of his talented players, Rioch still has a pool of players that are playing well and winning most of their Academy games. He is bringing on a further batch of players who look to have glittering futures ahead of themselves when they are given their own opportunities.
Ricoh enthused: “We have got another six second-year apprentices in the same age as Conor, Josh, Gael and Aaron and three of those are strikers."
“We have already had a little taste of Johnson Clarke-Harris when he made his debut against Morecambe last year, Billy Daniels has been scoring for fun in pre-season and got a hat-trick last week and Courtney Richards is another who has improved more than anyone in the last 12 months.
"There are a couple of defenders as well so there is more to come from this age group and we have got an under-17s group of eight players and they are quite an exciting group who have come in after leaving school, so we are in good shape.”
Even though having many Academy players in Thorn's senior side means he is short of players for his own sides, Rioch doesn't mind at all. What matters to him is that his players succeed and if success comes early to some players, so much the better.
“If I asked someone how we got on against Spurs three years ago they probably wouldn’t know but we remember the debuts of all the boys in the first team. We want to create winners but we want to develop footballers as well and it is just trying to maintain that balance.”
“We played Man City without those boys and lost 4-3 in our first game of the season when we conceded in the first and last 30 seconds,” said the Academy boss whose boys won 1-0 at Portsmouth on Saturday."
“We were disappointed but when you think we could have had one or two of the other boys we know we would have controlled the game a bit better, but it has given our under-16s a chance, just as Conor, Nathan and Gael got their chances before, to start progressing a little bit quicker."
“So we have been competing really well without them. Last week we beat Sheffield United 6-2, which was a magnificent performance and good result.”
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