Wigan Athletic FC Academy Manager sets new goals by signing on for VSI course

Huddersfield Town’s decision to scrap its Category Two academy set-up, because it hadn’t delivered sufficient talent during its 19 years, reverberated through Britain’s footballing community.

The timing seemed especially strange, as the Terriers had just achieved top-flight status for the first time in 45 seasons and received much acclaim for their performances. However, most coaches and managers are still firm believers in in-house youth structures, not least Gregor Rioch, who currently heads Wigan Athletic’s academy, after a very productive six years running Coventry City’s set-up.“We had some very good players come through; Cyrus Christie, who now plays for Middlesbrough and the Republic of Ireland, and Callum Wilson, who is at Bournemouth, were the stand-outs, but the most satisfying moment was last season, when Coventry won the Checkatrade Trophy at Wembley,” he recalls.“Seven youngsters who came through the academy were playing for City, and another one was in the Oxford United side. I was also very pleased, when I came to Wigan, that the club accepted my recommendation that my assistant, Rich Stevens, should continue our good work, and be promoted to academy manager.

“It was very challenging being at Coventry for the last season or two, given the well-documented issues about ownership, finance and league placing, but I think the academy’s achievements showed that positive outcomes can be achieved, if you have the right people, a good environment and the correct structures in place.”

Gregor is the son of Bruce Rioch, who clocked up 600 appearances as a goal-scoring midfielder, before going on to manage an impressive 11 clubs in England, Denmark and the US, including a spell at Arsenal where he cemented his place in club history by signing the Gunners’ legend, Dennis Bergkamp.

He made 300 league appearances, but moved into management aged just 29, when taking charge of the Danish club, Koge BK.

“I received great advice from my dad as a youngster, who told me to prepare for the future when I’d barely started playing, as he’d seen just how short a professional footballer’s career could be,” says Gregor..

“I did my first coaching badge at 17, had the UEFA ‘A’ licence when I was 23 and became a UEFA PRO Licence holder at 35. It’s something I always try to get across to youngsters now, that they have to think about a life after they stop playing, right from the start of their career.”

His belief in lifetime learning, and desire to enhance his qualifications as an academy coach, has now led Gregor to take a two-year MSc in Sporting Directorship, run by Visionary Sport Investment (VSI), in partnership with the Centre for Sports Business.

“I have always believed that ambition and direction is crucial; for clubs, for footballers and for coaches and I like to set realistic goals and expectations for myself and my team. Wigan has a Category Three academy for example, because we need to have indoor training facilities before we can achieve Category Two. However, I tell everyone who is here that in terms of how we run the academy, and the qualifications and experience of the staff, we must think of ourselves and work as a Category One.

“When I heard about the VSI course, and spoke to people who’d been in previous cohorts, I thought it would be a great learning experience for me, which would also benefit Wigan – and the chief executive agreed.

“I’m in the industry I love, I want to stay in it for years to come, and need different skills to complement the ones I have already acquired. Over the years, I’ve done lots of training courses, but very few management and leadership courses.

“When I came back from Denmark, to work at Manchester City, I had to very quickly pick up knowledge about recruitment, sports science, education and a lot more, because I was running a department and developing an academy.

“I think the VSI course will take me to a different level, by giving me the knowledge I’d need to potentially develop a football club, and I’m sure it’s going to be a very interesting – and sometimes very challenging – couple of years.” Tony Faulkner Cofounder of VSI says “Learning is about looking beyond your own field to discover new approaches, learn best practice and push margins, you have to know what good looks like. The course brings together senior people from differing fields to create that eclectic rich learning environment”.

For more information on the VSI MSc in Sports Directorship contact: info@vsiee.com www.vsiee.com

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