Many fans dream of working for the football club they support. One person who is living this dream is Chay Thompson, who is the Assistant Professional Development Phase Lead Coach for the Coventry City academy.
When asked about his job, Thompson told VAVEL UK: "It's always been a dream of mine to work for the club I love. It's the second-best job in the world... when I went part-time at Coventry City, I was buzzing as a young coach. I have gone through the age groups and now got a full-time job. It is sadly my life, but I wouldn't change it for the world because I love it."
First team success
Coventry's success over the past few years has largely gone unnoticed by the wider football community. Mark Robins has taken Coventry form EFL League Two to the EFL Championship, winning an EFL League One title and an EFL Trophy in that time.
On Coventry’s success, Thompson said: "They massively overachieved, what they’ve done both on and off the pitch last season has been above what we expected. The last two years we've had a lot to shout about, obviously as a fan it's great but as part of the academy it's given us, the players and the staff a lift.
"When the team got relegated to League Two it hurt me as a fan, but also it affected the staff and players at the academy as there is a lot of fans within the academy. However, over the years academy players have got into the first team, and with the first team's success and them being promoted it has been a change in atmosphere and everyone is on the up again.”
Robins has won 79 of his 169 games in charge and has a 1.63 points-per-game ratio. These stats, coupled with the three honours he has won means he has quickly become a fan favourite.
In-depth academy access
Coventry City's U18's play in the U18 Professional Development League as a result of Coventry's category two academy status. They will start the new season in the north division moving from last year's south division. They play 28 fixtures, playing each northern team twice and each southern team once.
Talking about the league as a whole, Thompson stated: "The last two or three seasons have been a challenge, but we have got players through the system during that period. We would like to win more games but it has been challenging. However, the be all end all is to get players through the system and on professional contracts so that's our goal.
"If we can keep a balance of winning games and getting players through then that's the right thing to do."
The academy's pre-season campaign gave the players a wide variety as they played both category one and category three teams to test the ability of the players, as well as develop them ahead of the new season.
Player development is very important to the academy, as Thompson explained: "We have a development focus, so we will look at the players we've got and then play a system that suits the players, if we have a tricky wing-back for example we may play a 3-5-2 so he gets opportunities both defending and attacking. We try to focus more on what players we have to determine the system we will play.
"Now the philosophy doesn't change, it's always to play through the thirds, looking to draw teams in to play around, through or over and to get on the ball and be brave... but it is up to us as coaches to get together and identify what system works for the group we've got."
Of course, the style is only part of developing a player, you need a certain level of talent and a strong work ethic to get to the first team. Discussing the development process, Thompson told us:
"They've come back this season and we are trying to iron a few things out but the most important thing is they need to believe in themselves and show that mentality which you need to have to progress in the game, which they have done in pre-season to be fair."
In 2017 The Guardian reported that there were over 12,000 boys in category one academies. However, hundreds of these boys are released from football each year, with many being left to fend for themselves.
At Coventry, when a player is released, the club make sure that he is looked after and they even get involved in helping the player decide where to go next, as Thompson explained: "The likelihood of every player getting a contract is very unlikely, but then what we do is we sit down and if they are unsuccessful in getting a contract we find what we can do for them next. We don't just say ok off you go, we sit down and go right what do you want to do?"
Many boys think once they are released their career in football is over, but that just isn't true. Thanks to the introduction of the 2012 Elite Performance Player Plan (EPPP), 16-18-year-olds who are in academy systems must continue with their education, commonly a BTEC sports diploma.
This offers plenty of routes back into the game, like the ones Thompson mentioned: "We've had lads go out to play in the states [USA], we've had lads go into the semi-professional game, we've had lads go to other professional clubs and some at a higher level than us. You've ultimately got to do what is right for that person and they are all different and have different characters and strengths.
"There's no right or wrong journey, you see players get professional contracts then fall out the game at 21, we've seen players not get contract, go into non-league and then work their way up, we've seen players go to America and we've seen players go to university and get jobs in football."
Fruits of their labour
Coventry City academy has a positive history when it comes to producing young footballers for the professional game. The academy featured in the top 20 clubs in the latest EFL Academy productivity statistics, owing to the hard work of staff within the program.
Thompson states “We are proud to see so many players come through at the football club more recently in Shipley, Bayliss and McCallum but also players like Maddison and Wilson, who give young footballers from Coventry aspirations towards where their journey could go.
”One of the skills of a coach is to provide the right level of support for these boys knowing when to challenge them and when to put an arm around them, for example. We have some exciting young players in our academy programme, and I feel we provide a programme which will continue to focus on their personal development and provide them an opportunity to improve."
Of course, as an academy coach your primary focus is to develop players, but you can't disregard yourself. Thompson has worked his way from coaching at popular local football education provider, Strachan Football Foundation, to a full-time job with The Sky Blues.
Discussing his future as a coach, Thompson explained: "Obviously I'm an ambitious coach, I've worked my way up at Coventry but I have a passion with the U18's at the moment and I really enjoy working with that group of players.
"I enjoy that group because you can work on things tactically, you can challenge the players in different ways, so to be honest I'm really happy with trying to be the best I can and having two or three more years being the best I can at U18 level."
Thompson and his colleagues in the academy are ready for the new season ahead after last years success of the first team.