Observer sports editor Steve Carpenter caught up with Coventry City’s Academy boss Richard Stevens to find out more about how the club’s youth setup has been such a huge success in recent years.
In the second of a two part interview, Stevens looked back on how the Academy made its mark at Wembley and looks ahead to what the future might hold.
The importance of the Academy to the football club has been highlighted in recent years with many players coming through and going on to become important first team regulars.
This season alone no fewer than 12 Academy players have played in the first team, with seven playing a big part on the biggest stage of them all as the Sky Blues lifted their first piece of silverware in over 30 years.
“I was very proud,” Stevens told the Observer. “I’d spoken to all of the boys the day before and their parents too because we’re an academy family and we’ve all grown up together.
It was a big day for them. We speak to them every day, we’re in touch all of the time over the course of their careers. It was their day and to play at the national stadium, you hope it’s not once in a life-time for them, but it very often can be.
“For me personally it was ten years all coming together on that day. To see so many of our boys on the pitch was special but it’s not just down to me.
“The staff were sat in the stands and there would have been staff no longer with us watching on TV, it might have been a part-time coach, a part-time physio, a lot of people have played a massive part and Wembley was the perfect day for the club but also for us as an academy.”
It was quite fitting that Gael Bigirimana and George Thomas were the Sky Blues heroes that day. Both players scored in an unforgettable 2-1 victory over Oxford as Mark Robins’ side won the Checkatrade Trophy and Stevens is keen to see them both in a City shirt next season.
“When Gael left us for Newcastle he was an incredible talent. He’s had a tough couple of years but he’s an unbelievable personality and character.
“I read the report in the Observer about Gael getting the boys together before the game and he told me that story when he came down the steps after the game.
“He needed that. He’s had some better performances of late and the new manager has trusted him and put him in the team. Gael is very capable.
“George has been in and out of the team this season and I think there was a stage where he took a little bit of stick from some of the supporters for not being able to score goals.
“I just felt that when he went into the first team very young, it wasn’t quite as easy for him and sometimes you can forget what you’re good at.
“But if you look at the last 12 weeks, George has just started to chip in with some goals and they’re good goals as well. He works incredibly hard and he takes everything to heart.
“When he plays below what he expects, he takes it to heart and when he plays well he enjoys that as well and I think we saw that at Wembley.
“He’s got talent but maybe in a different package to what his former academy team mate have.”
The latest crop off the CCFC Academy conveyor belt saw seven youngsters sign one-year professional deals, and one player who stands out after a hugely successful season for the Under-18s is Coventry-born striker Jordan Ponticelli.
“Jordan has only been in the building for just shy of a year and he’s got to get the next step of his development right. He’s got to apply himself in the under-23s, he’s got to get goals and get into the manager’s thoughts.
“The manager has got to see him and like what he does. If that happens then I’m sure he’ll get a chance.
“The step up from under-18s, to under-23s to the first team is a big one, especially at that end of the pitch. It’s a big step up and Jordan is in a good place right now, but he has to keep progressing and keep pushing.
“These players know that they’ve got to impress when training with the first team, do well in the Under-23s and as we’ve seen this year it only takes one of them to catch the manager’s eye at the right time and your career can accelerate.
“Whether that’s Ben Stevenson making his debut or Callum Maycock getting ten games, anyone of them could make their mark if they apply themselves properly.
“For me I think it’s another year for them to develop further, because they’re all good footballers in their own right, but they’ve got a lot to add to their game yet, and this is the next step for them.
“Timing is vital. If they go in too early they get swallowed up by it sometimes and maybe the fans don’t see them for what they are, but his time will come I’m sure.”
With the current crop of Under-18s preparing for the club’s first ever National Final and with more Academy players than ever in the first team, what does Stevens put the Academy’s success down to?
“One of the traits of a modern day footballer is personality and attitude,” Stevens added. “We almost talk about that before we see what they can and can’t do with the ball.
“They have to be good, humble people. We saw George (Thomas) giving his boots away at Wembley, you saw Ben (Stevenson) giving his shirt away, those aren’t pre-thought gestures, they’re just people loving what they’re doing.
“We have to do things the hard way. We’re not blessed with lots of resources. The Alan Higgs Centre is currently a fantastic place for us but we’ve obviously got a situation there at the moment.
“Staff come and go but I think collectively we’ve got the best staff that we’ve had for as long as I’ve been here.
“The accessibility and care of the staff is probably the first and most important ingredient. They care for the players, they help them and go above and beyond for them.
“As a player at our academy you feel important because staff will speak to you and help you. The players then have to buy into it and they have to have good personality and character because the academy system is tough.
“They’re all hungry to succeed and they’re all hard-working. They’ve all got to get mentally tougher because the challenges when they get older get harder.
“The club, the board and all of the managers have backed us. Some have added little bits to it and challenged us to think differently, which has been a good experience for us.
“The one thing all academies seek is opportunity for their young players. Because of our situation we’ve been able to provide opportunity for our young players.
“Every club has got talented players like we have, but not everyone of them can get them on the stage when it matters, but we’ve been able to do that.”