Gregor Rioch: How Academy became lifeblood of Wigan Athletic

Gregor Rioch is proud of the progress of Wigan Academy graduates like Joe Gelhardt (far right)

Gregor Rioch is proud of the progress of Wigan Academy graduates like Joe Gelhardt (far right)

THE moment Wigan Athletic entered administration in July 2020, it was about survival.

Having a football club that our supporters could return to once lockdown was lifted became the priority. Sales of Academy graduates Joe Gelhardt to Leeds United, Jensen Weir to Brighton and Alfie Devine to Tottenham kept Wigan afloat and gave us enough revenue and time to reach the next transfer window.

Without the Academy, Wigan Athletic may not have survived the crisis. I think this is actually the greatest compliment you could give to the Academy staff, players and parents who have supported us and worked tirelessly over the past decade.

With the challenges we faced last season, in terms of Covid-19 and administration, we managed to unearth a few gems from the Academy and progress them into senior football with our own first team. We came through the season with 224 first-team appearances in 51 games from a combination of 11 Academy graduates and three club-developed players from the U23s.

This was partly down to circumstance, but also due to the fact these players were ready to cut their teeth at first-team level. Four Academy graduates are regulars in our current first-team squad: Callum Lang, Luke Robinson, Adam Long and Thelo Aasgaard.

In total, 13 graduates have accumulated more than 80 first-team appearances for us so far this season, including seven senior debuts - Chris Sze, Kieran Lloyd, Sam Tickle, Baba Adeeko, Tom Costello, Scott Smith and James Carragher.

PURPOSE OF AN ACADEMY

Upon administration, the purpose of the Academy was about survival, as I've outlined above. However, in more 'normal' times there would be a wider purpose and different measures of success than just that. I regard these as being a combination of the following, in no particular order:

1. To facilitate the ambitions of our young players to play at the highest possible level

This could be professionally, semi-professionally or combining football with education. Over recent seasons, we’ve been proud to see a number of our youngsters selected to play international football at youth level, but we are just as proud of those who go into different industries or sign up to US scholarships where they combine work or education with football.

Former apprentices Harry Jolley and Charlie Forecast are great examples of this. They took the opportunity of four-year scholarships in the US with, respectively, North Carolina and North Illinois Universities.

2. A focus on education

We are conscious of the amount of time our schoolboys spend at the Academy. We have open communication with schools to ensure our schoolboy players are managing their homework and achieving their expected grades.

With our full-time scholars we combine the formal education programme with a football programme to ensure that, at the very least, our apprentices gain an education as they are completing their scholarship.

We also have an informal ‘Life After Football’ education programme for our young professionals.

3. To facilitate the ambitions of our staff to fulfil their aspirations and dreams

We are particularly proud that many of our full-time staff have been promoted from our part-time programme, because we believe in succession planning for our staff as well as for our players.

The likes of Gary Caldwell, Joe Parkinson, Peter Atherton, Dan Connor and Peter Murphy have all come through our Academy coaching programme and gone on to either manage or coach at first-team level.

We have a number of staff within different departments who have gone on to Premier League clubs and different disciplines having worked at Wigan Athletic.

4. Progression to first team and return on investment

There is no better feeling than watching an Academy graduate play for our first team. In the same breath, we love to see our young players maximise their full potential, outgrow the club and go on to be sold to Premier League clubs.

It is my aim for the Academy to be a financially, self-sustainable and profitable department. We are fortunate to have such forward-thinking owners who believe in the Academy and invest in its future.

With a holistic approach to improving all areas of the Academy I would love nothing more than to give our fantastic owners a return on their investment with player sales from the Academy in the near future.

PLAYER WELFARE

One particular area of player welfare we have had to adapt to over the past two years is the return to training for players following a period of time off due to Covid-19.

We are finding there is no particular pattern to a player’s physical recovery and that each player requires their own bespoke return to play strategy. The GPS data analysis supports our approach, along with player wellbeing sheets on a daily basis.

This is also prevalent when players are returning from injury with a condensed fixture programme ahead. It’s important we use a holistic approach to communication across all departments so we can keep players playing rather than on the treatment table.

TECHNOLOGY

At the Academy we use GPS provider STATSports to manage our athletes effectively through their development. The day-to-day monitoring using STATSports allows us to track both the external and internal load response of training.

The metrics we take from the system look at Total Distance, High Speed Running, Sprint Distance, the number of high intensity Accelerations and Decelerations, and various heart rate responses to training sessions. This data is then fed into our online database system: Action Apps.

Action Apps allows us to seamlessly transfer our key metrics through an automated process and instantly present it in an attractive format which is then shared across all departments.

The combination of these two systems allows us to manage our training load effectively across the season to be able to develop our athletes whilst ensuring we are maintaining a sound periodisation strategy in order to maximise readiness for matchday.

The data we collate from these systems are utilised across both our first team and our Academy. By having this continuity throughout the club, it allows us to easily compare and contrast the physical metrics between all of our squads.

USING PHYSICAL METRICS TO DETERMINE FIRST-TEAM READINESS

Throughout the season we will regularly look at our physical KPIs and see how our Academy players measure compared to their first-team counterparts. Being able to track physical metrics is pivotal in benchmarking where our players currently are. Combining our GPS data with our other performance testing allows us to create a physical profile for the players.

This allows us to identify any deficiencies within the physical capabilities of our players, but also recognise the positives amongst the data. As an example, we have seen a number of our Academy graduates feature in the first team this season, including 17-year-old Chris Sze, who made his first-team debut.

We looked at Chris’s physical data and compared it to Will Keane's. Chris had some great comparisons with Will, but there were also some key areas which he needed to work on in order to progress to become a regular first-team player.

Being able to highlight these areas allows us to formulate a specific development programme in order to ensure that our players are on track to meet the demands of first-team football.

We cannot stress the importance of this process enough. First-team football is not only played at a higher intensity, but the quick turnaround of games means that young players need to be strong and robust enough to be available on a regular basis.

Leicester City’s new Head of Academy Performance, Oliver Morgan, recently said that he is responsible for ensuring players, “Have the required physical attributes to support their football development and make the next step in their pathway and ultimately into the first team.”

I agree completely with that. These days, having technical ability may only get you so far. Over the last 10 years we have seen a transition in how the game is played and there is a demand to play with high intensity.

Players not only need a solid aerobic engine, they need to be able to perform all of these high-intensity actions on a regular basis, especially late in games that could be the difference between winning and losing. Being able to perform all of the aforementioned qualities comes from being fit, strong, and powerful.

Our sport science philosophy is to maximise player capability by improving physical performance, whilst also creating a resilient and robust athlete who can cope with demands above their level. Having a holistic approach to physical profiling allows us to benchmark our athletes and put the right programme in place to ensure they are on track to be effective in a first-team environment.

STATSports have proven to be the market leaders in GPS and have enabled us to perform on another level since we have been on board with them. The process of transferring our data from the pods once the lads finish training is complete in a matter of minutes.


STATSports: "We are proud of our partnership with Wigan and believe they have shown how to use our product and how to utilise it from the Academy right through to the first team, and are reaping the benefits. Gregor and his team have shown the potential gains from investing in the Academy and maximizing player data.”

For further info contact Michael McComb – m.mccomb@STATSports.com

The dashboard is user friendly, and the ability to customise our own excel export is great. This is vital given that we transfer our data into our centralised online hub Action Apps on a daily basis.

Also, there is the ability to record our training sessions live, which allows us to pinpoint our sessions from a physical perspective and meet our requirements for the day. However, I think what really sets STATSports apart is the service they offer.

If we ever need any assistance with new staff members, with using new features, or any other areas, our account manager is always on hand to provide support instantly. Given the demand of the environment and the need to produce data instantly, it is paramount that we can rely on STATSports to provide any assistance if ever required.

  • This article was produced in partnership with STATSports.

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