As a six-year-old boy, Dion Kelly-Evans began training at Coventry City’s academy alongside his twin brother, Devon. Following a Sunday League fixture one weekend, his father received a phone call. That conversation proved to be one that would set the wheels rolling in Dion’s footballing journey – he was now part of the youth setup at a professional football club, alongside Devon who followed him.
Despite his innocence at such a young age, Dion’s love of the game and an exemplary attitude stood him in good stead. Fourteen years later, he has regularly featured in the first team at Coventry, the team he supported growing up. Reminiscing about his time with the academy, the full-back remains full of praise for everybody connected to aiding his development.
He said: “The staff here are great, they like to teach you well. We have had some very good coaches and for any young lad who is out there working hard playing football, it can happen to anyone.
“I was playing Sunday League with Devon and then next thing you know my Dad gets a call and I’m at Coventry. It has been a fantastic experience, but it hasn’t proved easy.
“Progressing through the age groups isn’t as straightforward as everyone thinks. In football you have your ups and downs, your good and bad years, but I have learnt a lot during my time at the club so far.
“We know the transfer budget isn’t massive so there is a great chance for youngsters to break into the first team like they have done in recent years.”
After making his senior debut in the final game of the 2015/16 season away to Oldham Athletic, Kelly-Evans worked his way into the team last term and racked up a number of appearances. Despite the club suffering relegation to League Two, the defender believes it was a “brilliant” year for him on a personal level.
He said: “It has been great. Obviously we dropped out of League One, but I hope that will be the lowest point of my career. Football is unpredictable, but I never thought I would get relegated with the manner in which I go about my business on the pitch.
“Of course, it’s devastating, but I couldn’t have asked for a better season myself. Playing in the Checkatrade Trophy final and winning it at Wembley was unbelievable. If I had to choose a word to sum up the year it would be bittersweet, but I have really enjoyed it.”
The above mentioned cup-winning victory at Wembley stadium came in front of 43,000 Coventry City supporters, a sea of sky blue at the national stadium. Kelly-Evans was introduced as a second half substitute to help his side defeat Oxford United 2-1 to lift the trophy.
Trying to recall the feelings that ran through his mind that afternoon, Kelly-Evans said: “Wow, it was amazing, especially with me being a Coventry lad. I went to watch all the matches when I was growing up so to pull on that shirt and get out on the Wembley pitch was crazy.
“Going into the game knowing I wasn’t starting was disappointing given the fact I had played a big part in us reaching the final, but to come off the bench in front of all those fans was special.
“The moment was surreal and I don’t think I will ever get to experience that feeling again anywhere. Sometimes you only get opportunities like that once in your lifetime and I am glad it was with Coventry because it means that bit more.”
With off-field issues still surrounding the club and attendances at the Ricoh Arena dwindling, some would say the Sky Blues are heading for the abyss. However, Kelly-Evans believes that the fans have demonstrated just how much potential Coventry City has.
He said: “This club is absolutely massive and the fan base has always been there to tap into. With us underperforming they have been unhappy which is understandable, but they are a real asset and a credit to Coventry as a City.
“Our trophy win was for the supporters most definitely. We had a rotten season and they were desperate for a little lift and it was great to give them that. I spoke to a lot of people after the game and they all enjoyed it which is great.
“If we can earn promotion next season and build on that then the fans are only going to come back and things would grow. Hopefully there will be some better times to come.”
Going through four managers last season and finishing in 23rd position in the third tier, City went down with a whimper. Whilst fans may look at managerial appointments or other elements as the key reason, Kelly-Evans insists the players must take the flak.
He said: “You can talk about recruitment and other things, but we weren’t consistent enough as a group for the entire season. We rarely showed glimpses of how good we can be.
“There are a variety of things that went wrong, but it has to come back down the players. We know ourselves that we haven’t been good enough and we have paid the ultimate price and that is relegation.
“We are the ones out there on the pitch, we have to take responsibility and avoid pushing blame onto other people at the club.”
With supporters growing increasingly frustrated at the club’s downwards spiral, they will be hoping that Mark Robins can lead the Sky Blues to an instant return to League One. Since his arrival in March, form improved and Kelly-Evans puts that down to the manager’s no nonsense approach.
He said: “The gaffer is an old school manager who takes no nonsense whatsoever. He comes in and expects high standards, putting big demands on the squad.
“When that happens, people step up their game to try and impress and he has had a positive influence.
“He works in different ways with individual players and his man management skills are good. He can motivate you and then we just focus on ourselves, we don’t spend too much time worrying about other teams.
“If we do that to a high standard then we know we are capable. Confidence has improved amongst the players and the gaffer has provided a breath of fresh air, not just to us, but the fans also.”
With regards to where City need to strengthen if they want to compete at the right end of the division in 2017/18, Kelly-Evans trusts the manager to get things right, but he knows that every position is there to be taken.
He said: “Signing a goal scorer will be vitally important. However, we need an entire new team really and Robins has a massive job on his hands to rebuild the squad.
“We really struggled in finding the net last season, but the manager isn’t stupid. He knows the level well and he will know what we need going into League Two.
“Every position needs strengthening in all honesty so that players are competing for places. That would only aid our cause.”
Nine players have been released this summer, but both of the Kelly-Evans twins have been offered new contracts at their boyhood club. With negotiations ongoing, Dion insists that he is prepared for the challenge of the fourth tier should he still be a Coventry City player come August.
He said: “I look forward to testing myself every weekend when I am out there playing. The contract talks are still happening and I am just waiting for a few things to occur and hopefully they will get sorted.
“My aim is to push myself as far as I can next season and feature as regularly as possible in the starting eleven.
“As for Devon, I am still on this journey with him and he has been unfortunate not to break into the team, but he will go away now to work hard and come back stronger.
“Throughout the years we have progressed through the age groups fighting with each other and kicking each other, but it has been brilliant and I would love that to continue.”
As a defender, Dion often gets picked out for his lack of height, but that isn’t something that worries him. In League One he frequently demonstrated that he can stand up to the rigours of physical matches, something that he actually relishes.
He said: “I love proving people wrong and I’m more than confident that I would deal with what is thrown at me in League Two.
“I believe in my ability and what I can bring to a game. Physicality would actually rank as one of my biggest strengths in my opinion.
“Teams will try and target me due to my size and I will take that all day long because I will keep winning the headers and smashing into challenges. Nothing fazes me, you could be seven feet tall and I wouldn’t care.
“I just focus on myself and what I am good at and then I have no problems. Opposition players may look at me and see me as someone easily beatable, but I am always up for a battle.”
Looking ahead to the future of Coventry City, Kelly-Evans is remaining positive, but he believes that investing in the academy must be a top priority. With the future of its base in the balance he knows that losing Category Two status would be a real blow.
He said: “It is vital that everything gets sorted. Back in the day we used to play teams like Chelsea and Arsenal, but since the restructuring of the academy system we have stopped facing them.
“At the moment it is still a very good standard and we do take on some strong outfits, but you want to be competing against the best so if the academy does have to drop down it would be a massive shame.
“Of course, if that does happen it could have a big effect on the club moving forward. Getting things sorted at the academy as soon as possible has to be a priority.
“We have produced a remarkable amount of players who are now playing first team football here or elsewhere. I have been lucky enough to come through the system and others deserve to as well.”
You can follow Dion Kelly-Evans on Twitter @DionKellyEvans and you can also find me @M_Roper96.