Bristol City: How Championship club became a factory for homegrown talent

Of the 38 Championship games Bristol City have played this season, almost 30% of the minutes have been played by homegrown players.

It is a statistic that puts the club at the forefront of fielding academy talent, alongside Blackburn Rovers.

Ten players who have appeared for the first team this season have come through their youth set-up.

Some, such as goalkeeper Max O'Leary, leading scorer Tommy Conway, right-back Zak Vyner and left-back Cameron Pring, are long-established starters.

While last season, former academy players Alex Scott and Antoine Semenyo were sold to Premier League side Bournemouth for a combined fee in the region of £35m.

"This has been a long process, this hasn't happened overnight. This probably started with Brian Tinnion, who is now our technical director," Bristol City player pathway manager Trevor Challis told BBC Sport.

"He's instilled a player pathway and the players can see the likes of Alex Scott moving on, Antoine - they can see those players have progressed and they can also see there's a current crop of players playing at the minute."

The academy is graded category two by the Football Association but Challis says they strive towards a "category one performance".

Challis, who was speaking during the English Football League's (EFL) Youth Development week, said instilling the right culture and behaviours into young players is massively important and encompasses everything from the players being the first on the training field to cleaning up the canteen after lunch.

"It seems corny to say a holistic environment as we do but that only comes from coaches. I think we've got a low coach turnover, a lot of coaches have been here for five to 10 years - including myself," Challis said.

"We create an environment where we get to know the players really well, what they need, what they don't need, how we can challenge them."

Bristol City's under-18 team which Challis manages, are currently top of their Professional under-18 Development League and are through to the FA Youth Cup semi-finals for the first time, where they will take on Manchester City on 2 April.

"I can't speak for every club we come across but we certainly aspire to be the best cat 2 and I think we're achieving it at the moment - where we want to be," Challis said.

"Of course we always want to get better as coaches and as players within this building."

The season-long plan

When Bristol City's High Performance Centre training base was opened in 2021, the academy and men's and women's first teams were brought under one roof.

Former manager Nigel Pearson has been credited with further pushing the open-door policy that exists today and for encouraging senior players to get involved in supporting young players where they can.

"We're all on one site and everyone can work together across all spectrums of the building so that's massive," said Ali Hines, senior performance pathway manager who coaches the under-21 side.

The pitch at Bristol City's High Performance Centre
Bristol City men's, women's and academy sides have all co-existed under one roof at the High Performance Centre training base since 2021

A plan is made at the start of the season with targets set for breaking academy players into the first team to ensure they are given opportunities which the coaches constantly refer back to.

"We have a club plan, we have to have a certain amount of players in the matchday squad, we have to have a certain amount of players making their debut each season and we try and stick to it as much as we can," Hines said.

"It's challenging for us at times because we've got to be able to do it but we hope to achieve it every season.

"In the future we might struggle to do that if we get in the Premier League, it's going to be even harder, but we want that for the club so we're always trying to push it a little bit more every time."

'They've paved the way'

Bristol City manager Liam Manning, who was appointed in November, also has a background in working with young players having begun his coaching career in the academies at West Ham and Ipswich Town.

"Ever since he's come in, I've been on the bench almost every game, he's been really good with me - him and his staff," said Jamie Knight-Lebel, who is part of the club's academy.

"They go through training with me and footage and sometimes they'll help me through the sessions with extras after as well - it's quite a good bonus to have because they don't have to do that."

Knight-Lebel, 18, joined the Robins at under-14 level and is studying for a diploma in sport science through the club along with full-time training.

He made his first-team debut off the bench in the 2-0 defeat by Cardiff last October and has become a regular part of the senior training squad, before signing a new three-year deal with the club this month.

"Some of the players - for example Tommy Conway, Sam Bell - I've played with in under-23s only two seasons ago," Knight-Lebel said.

"To see the pathway they've gone on and the success they've had so far makes it easy for me, they've paved the way for me to realise what I want to get to."