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Who is Gael Bigirimana? All you need to know about Glentoran's new signing who scored for Newcastle United in the Premier League

 

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Gael Bigirimana celebrates scoring for Newcastle United in the Premier League.

Gael Bigirimana celebrates scoring for Newcastle United in the Premier League.

AFP via Getty Images

Gael Bigirimana celebrates scoring for Newcastle United in the Premier League.

Tuesday proved another busy day for Irish Cup winners Glentoran, with Elvio van Overbeek's departure overshadowed by the signing of two international footballers.

The arrival of 6'4 Gibraltar goalkeeper Dayle Coleing was arguably an even worse kept secret than Chris Johns' recent switch from Coleraine to Linfield.

However, the signing of former Newcastle United midfielder Gael Bigirimana caught fans more on the hop.

So just what do we know about him?

Age: 26

Birthplace: Bujumbura, Burundi

Height: 5'9

Position: Centre midfield

Arriving in England: Bigirimana, along with his father, two brothers and sister arrived in England as refugees in 2004, following four years after his mother as they fleed war-torn Burundi. Having played football on the streets of his home country's capital Bujumbura, the young Gael came with a love for the game.

If you don't ask, you don't get: Bigirimana was just 11 when, soon after his family settled in Coventry, he went to the shop for a bottle of milk and happened to see the Coventry City U11 side training. He plucked up some courage that would change his life. "I looked over my shoulder and I heard a voice inside me say 'go and ask to play'," he later explained. "I just said 'Lord they don't know me, I don't know them but whatever I ask them, make them say yes.' I told them I wanted to play and they were like 'it doesn't happen like that'. They said they would come and watch me play for my school team but then, as I was about to leave, they called me back and told me to come to the club tomorrow. A few months after that, they signed me."

From that bottle of milk to the first team: From there, Bigirimana's quality soon became evident, as well as his desire. "His determination to achieve manifests itself in his being the first at training and the last to leave," Coventry academy manager Gregor Rioch said. Starting with the Under 11s, he soon moved up through the age groups and made his senior breakthrough in 2011 aged just 17. He would go on to win the Championship Apprentice Award for that season after making 28 appearances.

Big-money move and a dream start: After just one season in the first team, Bigirimana earned a transfer to the Premier League's Newcastle United in a deal that was reported to be worth as much as £1m. His remarkable career trajectory continued in the 12/13 season as he played 25 games for the club, helping United to Premier League survival and the quarter-finals of the Europa League. He even scored in a 3-0 win over Wigan in December, ducking onto his left foot and smashing an unstoppable effort into the top corner.

Career stalls: It seemed, the day that strike flew into the net at St James' Park, that the sky was the limit for Bigirimana but, remarkably, it would prove to be his one and only goal for the club. The following two seasons yielded just one appearance, starting in a 2-0 win over Morecambe in the League Cup. Explaining what went wrong, last year he said that a lot of what happened 'has to stay in the past', but that the results-driven focus of the Premier League didn't help his case. "Football is a results business, and when results are not going well then the manager (in this case Alan Pardew) has to protect himself. Sometimes when you're a young player in that situation, you can suffer because obviously there's nothing about improving or developing players."

Ill-fated loan spell: Bigirimana was one of five Newcastle players rushed to Rangers on loan on the 2015 January transfer window deadline day. He wouldn't play a single game for the club, later confirming that it was an illness that kept him, unexpectedly, out of action.

Scoring at Wembley: While his Newcastle dream may have been ebbing to a frustrating close, a return to Coventry City, initially on loan before signing a permanent deal in summer 2016 would yield a spectacular highlight. Once again a regular in City's side, this time in League One, Bigirimana helped the club reach the final of the EFL Trophy at Wembley and scored the opener in the 2-1 victory over Oxford United at the historic stadium. As if the goal itself wasn't enough of a high, it came just 24 hours after the birth of his first daughter.

 

Downward spiral: Since he left City in 2017, his career has been a little nomadic with a two-year stay at Motherwell, who he could now face in the Europa League later this month, followed by brief spells at Hibernian and Solihull Moors in the National League.

International football: Bigirimana plays for his native Burundi at senior international level and helped the side to reach their first ever tournament finals in last year's African Cup of Nations. He was capped by England Under 20s in 2013.

What has he said about Glentoran: "It’s a great club with a great history," he told CoventryLive. "With the COVID situation and lack of football I’m delighted to start getting regular games and I’m looking forward to making a big impact with the team both in Northern Ireland and in Europe. My focus is on the next few games because we have Europa League qualifiers coming up."

Belfast Telegraph