The role George Friend played in Bryant Bilongo's transfer from Middlesbrough to Bristol Rovers

Bryant Bilongo admits George Friend played a key role in his decision to join Bristol Rovers this summer, as the academy prospect left Middlesbrough on a permanent basis.

Bilongo joined Rovers for an undisclosed fee on Friday, signing a two-year deal with the option of a further season at the Memorial Stadium. It followed a successful loan spell at National League side Ebbsfleet last term, after which the versatile full-back admitted to being frustrated by his lack of opportunities at the Riverside.

Now 22 and not considered close enough to the Boro first-team picture, the decision was made at Boro to grant the London-born defender his wish to leave the club and try and establish himself in League One to further his career. And with Boro favourite Friend now director of football at Bristol Rovers, there was an obvious connection there as far as making the deal was concerned.

READ MORE: Bryant Bilongo seals permanent Middlesbrough exit as club favourite makes use of connections

It wasn't just in using his connections to secure a deal that Friend was pivotal in the deal, however. In his first interview as a Gas player, Bilongo admitted speaking to Friend helped sell the club and the move to him.

He told the club website: “It means a lot to sign for Bristol Rovers. My career has been such a journey so far and to continue it by signing for such a big club like Rovers is amazing for me and my family. It’s a big achievement and this is a challenge I’m looking forward to.

“It’s been amazing to come here and see the facilities and get an idea of where I’m going to be working going forward. This is my new home and I’m excited to be here. The conversations with the manager and with George have been really good.

"They have high expectations of me, and I want to deliver for them. I have high expectations of myself too and I want to prove that this was the right move for everyone involved. I want to show them that they’ve made a good decision to sign me and repay that faith in me.

“I really got the feeling of what Bristol Rovers is about from them. This is a club with high aspirations and I could really feel that. It’s one of the main reasons that I pushed to come here. They both told me that the club is aiming high and wants to achieve things. Everyone is pushing in that direction, which is good to see and hear. The boss wants me to go out there and enjoy my football, and give my all for the team. That’s exactly what I intend to do. I will run, jump and fight for the team."

Bilongo signed for Boro from non-league side Kingstonian in the summer of 2022. He'd previously been on trial at Chelsea, with Boro securing his services when the Blues opted against offering him a deal. He was another Martin Carter find, with the Boro academy scout having great success in recent years of finding talent in the non-league scene of the capital.

Of how his alternative route into the professional game, Bilongo continued: “My journey in football has been tough. It’s been different too. I’ve come from non-league and I’ve played there most of my life. I came into the professional league quite late compared to others. It was a different journey and everyone has a different pathway, and I wouldn’t change mine.

“When I was younger, my name was touted around a bit and as a kid that’s an exciting place to be. You can go from a certain level one day to suddenly having everyone watching you, checking out what you’re about. The move to Middlesbrough was a big jump for me but I relished that. It was an exciting part of my career.

“I had a loan spell last season with Ebbsfleet that I feel helped me a lot. I think it gave me the needed experience of men’s football. I felt like I needed to prove to everyone that I could handle it and I think I’ve been able to do that. The point, for me now, is to develop myself and become a man here. I want to assert myself in the EFL and show what I can do.”