If Chris Rigg’s debut against Shrewsbury was the stuff that dreams are made of, his latest appearance in the red and white stripes almost pushed us into fantasy territory at Craven Cottage.
Only the linesman’s flag denied him what would’ve been a truly remarkable winning goal against Fulham on Saturday; the fifteen-year-old is making the most of the opportunities provided by Tony Mowbray and showing why there’s so much expectation surrounding him.
Already the holder of a storied record as our youngest-ever outfield player, Rigg slotted in superbly when called upon on Saturday, and with fellow prospects Tom Watson, Caden Kelly and Zak Johnson also taking their places on the bench, the decision to use the FA Cup as a pathway for the club’s up-and-comers is admirable.
On Mowbray’s part, his management of Rigg is exactly what you’d expect and his post-match interview, during which he spoke glowingly of his young charge, was uplifting as well.
Fundamentally, this is exactly why Mowbray was brought to the club, to create an environment where talent is nurtured and potential is harnessed. If an arm around the shoulder is needed, he’ll provide it and if some stern words are the order of the day, he’s got that base covered too.
By slowly phasing Rigg into the first team environment, he’s giving the youngster a taste of what the future could hold as well as the standards expected if he wants to progress.
Being around players such as Edouard Michut, Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke can only spur him on, and if he’s as level-headed as his boss has claimed, he’s already on the right track.
Long-term, there have been plenty of rumours suggesting that Rigg’s future might lie elsewhere, with a handful of top flight clubs said to be keeping tabs on him.
Talk of a move to Newcastle continues to linger (doubtless driven in part by his family allegiances), but objectively, would such a move genuinely benefit him from a football perspective?
With their new-found wealth and the distinct possibility of Champions League football on the horizon, it’s a safe bet that Newcastle are likely to opt for established superstar players or those close to such status when the summer transfer window opens, and that would be no real surprise.
For clubs with unlimited resources, the temptation to opt for ‘Galactico’ signings rather than investing in youth is a tempting one (not that their supporters would mind how success is achieved) but Chelsea’s policy of stockpiling and essentially farming players out without giving them a fair chance does serve as a warning.
With that in mind, would Rigg be able to find a pathway to the Newcastle first team if he made the switch, or would he end up being loaned out here there and everywhere, with no real chance of breaking through?
Under Mowbray, Rigg is serving an apprenticeship, and in many ways, it’s a throwback to the old days, when players were kept grounded and not given too much too soon.
The fact that he’s combining his burgeoning football career with GCSE studies is surreal in one sense, but it also gives credence to the old maxim of ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’.
If Rigg wants proof of why staying at Sunderland could be perfect for him, he only needs to look at Dan Neil, another academy product who’s absolutely thriving.
Neil’s transformation from talented prodigy to an ever-improving midfield orchestrator has been a joy to watch, and who’s to say that Rigg couldn’t follow a similar path? Nothing was handed to Neil (indeed, Mowbray’s predecessor didn’t seem to rate him in the slightest) but now he’s an automatic pick when fit, and a key cog in the Sunderland machine.
Nothing is guaranteed when it comes to the futures of any of our players, but if we’re to continue on the path we’re on, players like Rigg could have a major role to play in the years to come.
It would be great to think he sees his future in red and white, and it’s wonderful to see such a talented crop of homegrown players doing themselves, and the club, incredibly proud every time they step onto the pitch.