This summer marks the departure of two homegrown players in Lee Burge and Jordan Willis who each played over 150 games for the club. In an era for the club where there has tended to be a high player turnover any summer, it is an achievement for just one player to have met that mark, it seems unlikely that we’ll see two do so for a long while to come.
Burge and Willis’ achievement is largely the result of the financial strife the club had been in for most of the past decade, forcing the club to rely on the academy in a way it hadn’t done before. Starting when Cyrus Christie, Gael Bigirimana and Conor Thomas were thrown into the heart of a Championship relegation battle under Andy Thorn and symbolically culminating in Jordan Willis lifting the Checkatrade Trophy at Wembley in 2017 – with Mark Robins changing the emphasis at the club the following summer via the signings of experienced pros such as Michael Doyle and Liam Kelly.
From the Ricoh Arena, Sixfields, back again and during several difficult seasons in recent years, the academy has answered the call of the first-team. It delivered truly special talents in James Maddison, Callum Wilson but it has also served possibly a more important purpose in providing the first-team with a steady stream of players that would otherwise have needed to be signed, as marked by Lee Burge and Jordan Willis becoming fixtures of the starting XI for much of the past four seasons and us being able to focus our recruitment on other areas of the team.
Of course, bringing through academy players carries the downside that few, if any, enter the first-team as the finished product. Part of a young player improving, particularly as a defender or goalkeeper, is that they make mistakes. There is no guarantee either that the player will come through that learning period as a player better than you would otherwise be able to sign. For every Callum Wilson, there’s a Shaun Jeffers or Billy Daniels who looked promising initially but failed to step up.
The trajectories of those aforementioned three players is why it is especially rare that academy players embed themselves in the first-team and stay long enough to make over 150 appearances as Lee Burge and Jordan Willis have done. If a young player looks good at an early age, they will attract interest, if they don’t make an impression, they are released and forgotten about.
The question with Lee Burge and Jordan Willis is whether they the first-team is better off having brought them through versus bringing in tried and trusted professionals who represented less of a risk. Few would argue against Jordan Willis not being at least a good player for our level – with his covering pace a huge asset for the defence – over the past few years. Burge is a tougher debate to have, as much as the difficulties in sourcing a first-team goalkeeper led to his opportunity to establish himself – remember Ryan Allsop and Jamie Jones? – it will probably only be apparent when Burge shows what he can do at another club and how good Marko Marosi proves himself to be that we’ll have a better indication of Burge’s ability.
Next season, Lee Burge and Jordan Willis will be players of a rival team, while it seems likely that only one academy-produced player – Tom Bayliss, if he stays at the club – will be a regular starter. It has been a gradual process but Mark Robins’ recruitment has taken us to this juncture where the academy has become less important as a source of first-team – and, to an extent, under-23 – players than in previous years.
Just what the merits of this switch in emphasis remains to be seen. Seeing Jordan Willis lead an academy side to victory at Wembley in the Checkatrade Trophy in 2017 felt a sweeter moment than the promotion-winning victory that followed just over 12 months later. It is probably a signal of progress that as a club, we are not being forced into playing young, academy-produced players before they are ready but it will add a little to the sense of dislocation that playing outside of Coventry next season will produce that it is possible that our starting line-ups may not even include one homegrown player.