From Bristol Free School to Bristol City’s first team: The rise of future star Ayman Benarous

Ayman Benarous has enjoyed a great breakthrough season at Bristol CityAyman Benarous has enjoyed a great breakthrough season at Bristol City
Ayman Benarous has enjoyed a great breakthrough season at Bristol City | Getty Images
Ayman Benarous rise through the ranks through the words of his former PE teacher and current manager Nigel Pearson

The soul of a football club is of paramount importance. A club’s academy helps to drive that, and delivers pride into players and a motivation to win and succeed.

Bristol City’s academy has cranked up production in recent seasons, but after Bobby Reid and Joe Bryan made the first team successfully the pair refused to sign new contracts at Ashton Gate, and had to be sold on for good fees.

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Former Bristol Central youth player Lloyd Kelly then burst onto the scene to plug the gap at left-back and went for an even bigger fee to be reinvested into the side.

That reinvestment went wonky however, and now the West Country outfit are looking at their youth ranks for the next diamonds to follow on.

There are a few that may just fit the bill.

One is Ayman Benarous, who has enjoyed a great breakthrough season, being selected to start ahead of more senior options this campaign, such as Kasey Palmer in midfield or Nahki Wells as a wide attacker. He has made six appearances in the English second tier to date, with four starts. City supporters are liking what they see.

The predominantly left-footed attacking midfielder has impressed manager Nigel Pearson in training, with the former Leicester City boss adamant that reputations count for nothing when it comes to team selection.

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In choosing the starting XI, the work rate and intensity shown by Benarous has been enough to get the nod ahead of senior options, and that character was a rare positive in the 2-3 loss to Huddersfield Town last weekend.

Similarly, supporters relished a small clip of the player kicking an opposition player’s boot away in the recent draw with Blackburn Rovers. The manager’s cantankerous nature may be rubbing off.

“When you consider Ayman Benarous got the nod ahead of Kasey Palmer… that tells you about what I see in training,” the Bristol City boss said earlier this season.

He added that it is unlikely that the Robins could ever build a side that should match the late 1970s team of Alan Dicks, who contained almost half a squad of local Bristolian talent and were the last City side to play in the top flight, not for 42 years since.

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“Some people might think it’s too idealistic but if we can get it right it would be fantastic,” conceded the manager though, as Bristol City look for a happy medium between the bought and the brought up.

Pearson may well be right regarding the number of Bristolians in the team but local lads certainly matter and get the crowds roaring. Especially one as talented as Benarous, whose family run a restaurant in the centre of the city and who has family heritage going back to Algeria.

Indeed, this writer has discussed the talents of the great Zinedine Zidane, who is of Algerian descent, with Benarous’ father several times at U23s games, and there is a bit of the dribbling style shared between Zizou and the former pupil of the Bristol Free School in Southmead.

As well as the ex-Real Madrid, Juventus and Bordeaux man, Fernando Torres, Messi, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho have been inspirations to Benarous early in his life.

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Indeed, continuing the global theme, Benarous has quite an Algerian following on social media now, given his background, and if it were not for two caps with the England U17s then there may have been a decision to make. As it is, the Algerian flag adorns social media posts showing that the support is there.

City fans should take special notice of Benarous for several reasons.

The first is that exquisite technique which former City head of the academy Gary Probert has described as ‘exciting’. “He can beat people one-v-one, he has a really high level of technique, good game intelligence. He’s an exciting player,” said Probert previously.

Secondly, Benarous is the only Bristolian currently involved in the first-team, with Sam Bell on loan, Tommy Conway from Taunton and Ryley Towler only just having arrived back from Grimsby. And that connection with the fans should help him and club do well.

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Thirdly, the 18-year-old flair player is already standing out in training and at times in games. As someone senior at the club recently opined by text message this week: “he’s the next one”, with young talent continuing to spring from Failand.

Early talent

Benarous’ former PE teacher turned football coach Luke Corrish, who now runs the Bristol Advanced Development Centre (BADC), explains to BristolWorld what made the attacking midfielder stand out at a young age.

“We had an end of term football game and it was the last week of school in the summer. It was an XI-a-side pitch and played class versus class with all the year group together. And I didn’t really know him as a footballer then, but if you know of Maradona or Messi, he was like that then, running around everybody with skills and body faints.” says former Westbury Park teacher Corrish.

“I turned around to the other teacher and ‘have you just seen that? Unbelievable’. He took on the whole team from his own box and then around the goalkeeper. It was too easy for him.

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“It was the way he glided around the pitch. It was not normal.”

Corrish works with many young gifted players and phoned a contact at Bristol City to alert them to Benarous’ talents - only to find that the then 10-year-old was already on the books of the Robins.Elite level balance, skill and movement made him stand out. Along with a terrific attitude and the ability to spot a pass.

“He’s a very humble nice boy,” adds Corrish, who has kept in touch with the family.“

He’s definitely one of the best talents I’ve seen,” adds the coach, who has seen several of his recent young players at BADC join Chelsea, Bristol Rovers, Bristol City and Birmingham City.

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Next steps

Now Nigel Pearson is the man overseeing Benarous’s array of skills, even if, as on Saturday, it’s a strangely unfamiliar role playing as left wing-back. However Benarous did well even there and once he acclimatises further to this new higher level of football then the playmaker may really shine.

This week the player had his City shirt framed to celebrate his recent first-team debut, and that academy pride will be bursting currently.

The former England U17 youth international caught the eye of former Bristol City midfielder, now Arsenal youth coach, Kevin Betsy several years ago when he was in charge of the Three Lions youth side.

National recognition followed progression through the ranks at Ashton Gate, with a good showing in last year’s Youth Cup too.

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There is another link with Betsy’s Gunners, as Benarous visited the north London side as a guest of the World In Motion agency recently, with QPR boss Mark Warburton’s son Jack playing a key role in identifying Benarous as a big talent of the future.

It was a chance to see the top level of the game in England, and by way of the other side of the coin, fellow City attacking midfielder Alex Scott has visited Spurs before with his agency, as these young talents examine what it takes to make it to the pinnacle of the English game.

That road is long and there are plenty of pitfalls along the way, but Benarous has all the attributes to get there. His current manager summed things up recently: “He’s a talented boy but he’s also intelligent, he watches and listens. Look out for him in the future.”

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