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Bigirimana buried: How Gael explains Alan Pardew

Guest author Kieran Dodds chronicles Gael Bigirimana's meteoric rise and sudden disappearance.

Paul Thomas

Among the million and one reasons why Alan Pardew deserves the sack, surely, is his shoddy treatment of Newcastle's young players. It's not that he fails to give them the initial breaks. Adam Armstrong, for instance, started and impressed at Crystal Palace in that oh-so-rare cup win. Rather, it's that they'll be talked up, given the most fleeting glimpse of first team football, and then summarily sent packing to Pardew's personal footballing gulag. It'll happen to the club's ‘most natural finisher,' Armstrong (already dumped from the squad in favour of Sammy Ameobi), and his breakthrough buddy, Rolando Aarons. It'll happen to the ‘young Coloccini,' Lubomir Satka. And it's already happened to the second most likeable player on our books (shout out to Jonas Gutierrez), Gael Bigirimana. Here are five reasons why that's a damn shame.


If you're not aware of this already, you bloody well should be. It starts like that of most professional footballers, with a simple compulsion: ‘As a young boy, life for me was school, football, sleep, school, football, sleep.' You might recall Alan Shearer coming out with something similar when pressed by the Guardian's ‘Small Talk' to name his favourite childhood cartoon. ‘I didn't watch cartoons,' he said. ‘I was too busy playing football.'

Bigi, though, had no Wallsend Boys Club. He was born in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, on October 22 1993, only a day after the assassination of the country's first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye. This triggered an 11-year civil war in which hundreds of thousands were killed and yet more, like the footballer's family, displaced. He and his father, sister, and two brothers moved to Kampala, Uganda; his mother moved to Coventry, England, ‘to make life better' for those she loved. After four years of separation, they were eventually reunited, and the young lad's career could begin in earnest.


In 2005, an 11-year-old refugee with nothing so much as a kit or boots with which to play football accosted Coventry City's coaching staff at their training ground and asked if he might be given a trial. ‘No,' he was told - at least not yet. Instead, he would have to go through the proper channels: play for his school team, write letters to the club, and so on. Only then would he have the chance to be scouted. But this was enough for the young Bigi, delighted by even the mere possibility. He excitedly burst away from the academy.

Whether it was his enthusiasm or his sudden turn of pace that did it, only the scout who called Bigi back knows for sure. But shout the scout did, inviting the cheeky lad to take part in a training session that was to be held the next day. Once he sourced some boots and shinpads, that was very much that: six years later, as a 17-year-old, he made his Championship debut for Coventry; little over a year after that he was playing in the Europa League for Newcastle United.


As if those inspirational tales aren't enough to make you love the lad, get this: his favourite musicians are Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. The Newcastle dressing room is a diverse place, but you'd expect the players' taste in music to be pretty homogeneous: yes, Fabricio Coloccini might prefer some Argentinean standards, and yes, Vurnon Anita is big on his Dutch rap, but you just know that they'll be drowned out pre-match by Steven Taylor and his Ministry of Sound compilation albums. Any 20-year-old who deigns to push back against the True GeordieTM tide with ‘Islands in the Stream' and ‘The Greatest Gift of All' deserves our full support, and, more than that, our admiration.

But it would be remiss not to mention Bigi's number one hero: Jesus Christ. To be humble is also rare among young professional footballers; Bigi, again, is an exception. He credits his recruitment by Coventry to a ‘whisper from God,' and has more than once called his nascent career a ‘miracle.'

Part of anti-racism charity Kick It Out's ‘Next 20' initiative, he has also spoken to those currently residing in Durham Prison about the need for a ‘second chance in life,' delighted to have the ‘opportunity to show love and respect to other people, simply anybody who is a human being and anybody in the community.' His words are as relevant to certain footballers and football fans as they are to any North East prison population.


He means what he says, too. Unable to make the trip to Portugal for United's 2013 preseason tour due to his selection for England U20s, Bigi decided to train alone on Tynemouth beach so as to not fall behind his teammates. When he got there, however, he found that he was infringing on the wedding reception of two locals. Unperturbed, as reported at the time, ‘Bigi happily agreed to pose for photos with the happy couple and stayed at the reception for an hour, mingling with other guests and signing autographs.' (Generously) gatecrashing Geordie weddings: how's that for showing love to the community?

Oh, and a final anecdote that belies classification: Gael Bigirimana drives a Vauxhall Corsa and failed his test 14 (fourteen) times before finally getting the better of the DVLA. Such persistence alone merits a starting central midfield berth.


And, you know what? He's not a bad footballer, either, despite his recent ‘disappearance.' Eligible for England, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (‘Bigirimana's a Country,' to quote the fantastic Football's a Country team), it's easy to forget just how promising his career once appeared. He beat Palace's Jonathan Williams (‘Joniesta' to his fans) to the 2012 Championship Apprentice of the Year award while playing for a largely poor Coventry team, prompting the million-pound move to Newcastle. And at first he flourished, impressing in a handful of Europa League appearances and scoring with a stunning left-footed drive in a 3-0 victory over Wigan. (Matt Le Tissier, on co-commentary, deemed it ‘absolutely superb,' and he should know.)

There then came starts against Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, and - in a Europa League quarter final - Benfica. In a sign of what was to come, Bigi actually started on the right-hand side in the latter match, and despite a respectable performance in an unfamiliar position, he was withdrawn at half time in favour of Shola Ameobi. And then... nothing - or, more precisely, zero Premier League appearances and one League Cup appearance in the entire 2013-14 season. Now languishing in the U21s, it's a case of ‘bye-bye, Benfica' and ‘hello, Blyth.'

What better summary of Pardew's handling of the club's youngsters than this? Time and time again, mismanagement is dressed up as opportunity. Only one solution remains available to us, comrades: PARDS OUT, BIGI IN.