Put simply, Coventry City have developed a winning formula when it comes to youth development. Driven by a club-wide set of core values, theirs has been recognised as one of the country’s leading academies, with many a blue sky ahead for the latest cohort of budding Sky Blues.
The idea of a Coventry conveyor belt is nothing new, either. One look at the growing list of graduates to have risen through the West Midlands ranks paints a sufficient picture, with Leicester City’s James Maddison and Newcastle United’s Callum Wilson just two of their more recent success stories.
Academy products have continued to feature regularly in the Sky Blues squad too, with players such as Jordan Shipley, Jordan Willis, Lee Burge and Tom Bayliss all making the step into first-team football in the last few years, following in the footsteps of Jordan Clarke, Jermaine Grandison, Nathan Cameron and Josh Ruffels, who have all enjoyed careers within the EFL.
“Players like James Maddison and Callum Wilson have been outstanding advocates for the Academy and have gone on to big things in the Premier League… anyone would be proud of having a group come through like that,” says City’s current Academy Manager, Dan Bolas.
“Everyone tells stories of the players that have come through. My previous role was at Aston Villa and you heard the same stories about Jack Grealish there. These are players with great self-confidence and ability, players who keep pushing despite the ups and downs. When they get to that first team breakthrough, they never look back, and that’s what happened with them – they’re now right up there in the Premier League.
“The success of the Academy is down to a large number of staff that have provided a continuation and pathway for these young players. We get massive support from the first team and the club in general; we’ve got a great Academy but if players get to 18 or 19 and there isn’t a manager, CEO or Board in place to back them, they don’t get those debuts or minutes on the pitch.”
In manager Mark Robins, who’s over four years into his second spell at the City helm, Coventry have just the man. The seventh-longest-serving manager in the EFL, he’s built a reputation for putting faith in the next generation of talent and has never shied away from giving youngsters their opportunity to shine.
The final game of 2020/21 – one which ended in Coventry’s biggest win of the campaign - is evidence enough of the club’s commitment to youth. It was home-grown talent Jordan Shipley who opened the scoring in the eventual 6-1 victory over Millwall, as the Sky Blues recorded their best league finish for 15 years.
The 23-year-old midfielder has played in all three EFL divisions since developing in the Coventry youth system, and will now hope to top 150 senior league appearances for the club during the 2021/22 season.
“There are a few,” Bolas adds. “You’ve got players like Tom Bayliss, who was a big part of the squad a couple of seasons ago and now playing in Preston’s first-team squad in the Championship. The biggest one for me, though, is Jordan. He started with the club in League Two and made his debut in 2017 before coming up through the divisions with the club. He’s still impacting games; he’s not just a token Academy player, he’s there on merit and because of his ability. That’s what you want.
“I’m a massive believer that you’re not an Academy graduate when you’ve made one first-team appearance or come off the bench for 10 minutes – you’ve got to get 50 or 60 games under your belt and then we can really say that the Academy has prepared you for life in football. Jordan’s done that, he’s got more than 100 appearances now across three EFL divisions, so if we had a couple of him every season, we’d be happy!
“The gaffer is aware of the young players coming through, he knows the names of the 15 and 16-year-old players we’ve got and he knows about their backgrounds. These aren’t players that are just being thrown into the first team at the ages of 19 or 20, they’re players that have been in his mind for a long time. It’s imperative to the whole process. One of our values is development and that goes right the way through to the first team, and the consistency of having the gaffer at the club for a number of years has been massive. Him and his staff have a background in youth development, and that makes my job easier.”
Bolas describes “the player pathway” as the single most important thing to any Academy, with a clear route to first-team football important to the growth of aspiring stars. Every player’s journey is different, and Coventry have also benefitted from the pyramid by way of the loan system, with youngsters gaining vital experience in lower divisions to prepare them for life in a competitive environment.
“We’ve had several players go out on loan and it’s given them some really good experience,” he adds. “Jack Burroughs went out on loan further down the pyramid and has been involved in the last couple of games for the first team, having been here since he was nine. He’s had a great journey that’s required him to play men’s football at some stage.
“While we might not be able to offer the most lavish facilities in the country, we can guarantee young players the chance to develop and have minutes on the pitch. We’re not an Academy that takes a plethora of players; we believe it’s about quality, not quantity. We’re a one-club city, and if we’ve got young lads from the Coventry area who can get into our youth set-up and prove their worth, when they get to 18 or 19, there aren’t eight or nine players between them and a first-team shirt. That, for me, is a really important thing.
“Our values are respect, development and resilience, and there’s a full-club approach to that.”
And so many might well look to Coventry for the next Maddison, Wilson, Bayliss or Shipley, and with good reason. ‘Respect, development and resilience’ has become not just a Sky Blues mantra, but a recipe for success, one from which the next batch of hopefuls will hope to benefit.
“As someone that’s worked in youth development as part of the professional game for over a decade, you really do see some talented players,” Bolas concludes. “There are so many of them coming through, and I think it’s showing in the England squad now. It’s really important that we understand there’s a lot of talent across the country, and that it’s not just at Premier League academies. It’s right the way through the pyramid, and they’ll all move up and down that pyramid throughout their journey.”
This feature originally appeared in the summer 2021 edition of the EFL Magazine.