FOOTBALL: MIDFIELDER Tom Bayliss has been tipped to follow in the footsteps of Callum Wilson and James Maddison and make it to the top level by the man who gave him his first big opportunity in football, writes Steve Carpenter.
Rich Stevens has been working as Academy Manager for the Sky Blues for over a decade and has played a key role in the development of no fewer than 45 youngsters who have come through the Academy into the first team during his tenure.
They include Republic of Ireland international Cyrus Christie, Premier League hotshot Wilson and in-form Norwich City starlet Maddison.
The latest player to fly off the conveyor belt of talent at the Alan Higgs Centre is Bayliss.
The 18-year-old has impressed in each of his ten appearances so far this season and his progress in League Two has come as a pleasant surprise to Stevens.
“It doesn’t surprise me he’s got into the first team, but it does surprise me how well he’s taking to it because he looks so comfortable,” said Stevens.
“I watched him away at Carlisle in what was a tough game on a terrible pitch, but he just ploughed through it. He kept running and driving with the ball and taking the ball off seasoned League Two players.
“I remember thinking, ‘he really does fancy this’ and he hasn’t changed; even now he remains humble. He will be a fan’s favourite because they can relate to him. He’s hardworking and everything he has got he’s worked for it.
“Tom is very early in his career but he could take himself to anywhere he wants to be. He can play higher up the divisions in time, but at the moment he’s getting an unbelievable opportunity of playing men’s football in League Two in a team that’s looking to be successful.
“It’s all about the timing of when you go and where you go. I hope he gets plenty more games in our first team because it’s important for him and his development.”
It has not been all plain sailing for the City youngster. Bayliss came to the Sky Blues as an 11-year-old and was signed after attending an open trial night.
He progressed through the age groups but had a series of injury setbacks, including a back problem at 15, which put him out for almost half a year.
“I remember having a meeting with his dad when he was 16 and we weren’t quite ready to make a decision,” Stevens revealed. “We’d offered a few of the boys in the group deals and we made Tom wait a little bit.
“I wasn’t sure how he’d take it and at the time he probably wasn’t sure how to take it, but he walked out of the room, came back on the training field and at that moment he didn’t look back.
“He was driven, he showed hunger and he had desire – he really wanted it. He had a setback but he went back out and he was so driven.
“From that moment he played pretty much all season in the under-17s and as a first team scholar he played all season for the under-18s ahead of some of the older boys.”
Bayliss has attracted interest from a host of Championship and Premier League clubs with his battling performances, but the box-to-box midfielder also has a keen eye for goal.
The teenager made history by scoring his first Sky Blues goal on his league debut – the fastest goal scored by a debutant at the club since 1956.
Stevens continued: “His best position is definitely in the middle of the pitch but that’s not to say he can’t do a job on the either side or playing a bit narrower.
“The beauty of our academy is that we move players around so they get a bit of a feel for different parts of the field.
“Tom is your more traditional midfield player who breaks the play up, passes the ball and drives with the ball. He’s got that driving stride where he runs with the ball and the fans love that.
Leicester-born Bayliss is developing all the time in the heart of the Sky Blues midfield alongside veteran skipper Michael Doyle.
And Stevens feels playing week in, week out alongside the experienced Irishman will aid his development.
He added: “I’ve read a few of Doyle’s interviews and you can tell he loves Tom. He’ll take Tom under his wing and Tom will see the reality of men’s football.
“Doyle will do what it takes to impact the game, in and out of possession and I think Tom will see that.
“He is the ultimate professional and Tom will see that, he’ll see what it takes to be fit at his age. Tom will get so much from playing alongside a player with that level of experience.”