It might sound vaguely ridiculous to make such a claim, given his tender age, but Chris Rigg has enjoyed quite the rise to prominence during 2023.
After almost making himself a hero during our FA Cup trip to Fulham, he established himself as one of the brightest prospects to emerge from Sunderland’s academy for some time. Unfortunately, injury brought his 2022/2023 campaign to an early end, but there was a good deal of excitement at what we’d seen and what he might eventually contribute.
Following plenty of speculation that a move to Newcastle was potentially on the cards, the fact that we were able to secure his services on a new two-year contract was a hugely positive development for both the player and the club.
After all that, and as if the past six months couldn’t have been more memorable for him, Rigg now finds himself in America as part of the club’s pre-season tour - and not just as a fringe player or water carrier, either.
He scored during Saturday night’s victory over San Antonio (his second goal of pre-season, following a smart finish against South Shields) and drew praise from Tony Mowbray in the aftermath. He also caught the eye with a composed post-match interview that hinted at a mature and level-headed mindset, which are definitely qualities we’re looking for in young players.
It’s a great story and one that every Sunderland fan can relate to, but the feel-good factor of another local lad beginning his journey in red and white is just one facet.
Even at sixteen, Rigg is clearly a prodigiously talented young footballer who’s also involved in the England setup, and although the decision to take him to America with the first team squad might’ve been something of a surprise, it’s clearly been done for valid reasons and it has the potential to represent a huge step forward in his young career.
Spending time with the club’s most valuable players and seeing how they train and approach games is something that’ll bring huge rewards for Rigg, and it’s a safe bet that he’ll be soaking it all up, applying himself diligently and learning from those around him.
What were most of us doing at the age of sixteen, after all?
In Rigg’s case, he’s been given the chance to learn from the likes of Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts, and to rely on the likes of Luke O’Nien and Danny Batth for advice and guidance. It’s a remarkable show of faith in the youngster’s ability, and more evidence that a key area of the club is finally recovering after years of neglect.
For the first time in many years, and in a long overdue development, there’s now a clear pathway from academy level to Sunderland’s first team.
In years gone by, someone of Rigg’s talent would've been sold for buttons as the club was cut to the bone in just about every area as we fought to stay afloat during the League One years. However, the exact opposite is now true, and amid a crop of highly promising young players who’ve signed new contracts in recent weeks, he’s definitely the most exciting.
With that in mind, how does Mowbray go about managing Rigg during the coming season?
If he continues to impress in both training and match situations, perhaps the temptation to speed up his eventual progress into the first team might grow stronger. At the same time, Rigg comes across as a level-headed young player and someone who appreciates that a lot of hard work is needed if he’s to fulfil that potential.
Personally, I’d expect Rigg to continue his progression through the age-group teams, with Mowbray perhaps calling on his services in the League Cup and for the occasional league game, giving him a taste of Championship football whenever the timing feels right.
Managing his workload and ensuring that he’s not burned out or put at the risk of injury is absolutely vital, as well as remembering that he’s still finding his way in the game and will inevitably experience ups and downs in form, just like fellow academy graduates Dan Neil and Anthony Patterson.
There’s no doubt that Sunderland is the perfect place for Rigg at this stage of his career.
Everything is geared towards helping players of his undoubted ability reach their full potential, and as he continues to learn from our more experienced players in America, he’ll be gaining priceless insights into what’s needed if he wants to enjoy a long and successful career at the top of the game.