Amongst a lot of the great achievements coming out of the Derby County Academy from the 2016/17 season, the Under-23s retaining their Premier League 2 Division 1 status is right up there.
The Rams sealed their safety with a 2-1 victory over Chelsea on the final day of the campaign earlier this month to complete a remarkable turnaround over 2017 to beat the drop and ensure they will be competing with the country’s elite once again next term.
It was an outcome that looked unlikely heading into Christmas.
RamsTV recently sat down for an in-depth interview with Darren Wassall, Derby’s academy director, to review the success of his Under-23s group over the last 12 months.
In the first of this two-part interview, the 48-year-old assesses the first half of the campaign; looking at the challenge the Rams were posed, keeping his players positive after a tough start and why no-one was panicking at the halfway point…
“We knew that it was going to be a big challenge. We celebrated, quite rightly, the tremendous season beforehand when we pipped Arsenal to the title to get promotion to the top league in Premier League 2.
“We were, though, under no illusions of the tough task that we had ahead of us because of the teams that we were going to be coming up against.
“We’re talking about club’s that are competing in the Champions League – current or previous – like Manchester United, Manchester City, Everton, Arsenal and Liverpool to name just a few.
“The quality of the opposition had improved massively for us and there was that alongside the fact that we weren’t operating on a big Under-23s squad so we knew that would create some challenges for us, but opportunities as well.”
“The good thing about the start to the season that we had, if there was an outcome to be celebrated, was the fact that in most of those games we played, we were more than in it.
“We lost the Manchester United game quite late on, but also there was the Manchester City match on the opening day where we 2-0 up and they showed a bit of quality in the last 20 minutes to beat us 3-2.
“It wasn’t that we were getting hammered every week. We were competitive, but had been unlucky.
“I said to the players, as I have done over the eight years that I have been here, that if they keep working hard then their luck will change.
“It’s an old cliché in football, but it’s so true. It was great to get that first win (against Reading) and it came from the fact that we were able to keep the players focused because we knew that they were going in the right direction against these top-quality opponents.”
“It’s never nice to be bottom of the League. It was a complete contrast to the year before when we had been fighting for that top spot and we managed to get it.
“It had been a difficult season in that respect for them, but we still believed that we were playing well and to the upmost of our ability.
“We also knew that some of our senior Under-23 players would go out on loan.
“There was Jamie Hanson, Callum Guy, Farrend Rawson and Charles Vernam – all who had been mainstays in that squad – joined Wigan Athletic, Port Vale and Coventry City respectively and at that point alarm bells could have been ringing.
“The fact that we were bottom of the League and we had lost four of our senior Under-23s could have been a worrying prospect, but the great thing about the squad that we had at our disposal was that they were chomping at the bit.
“There were a few players in there that hadn’t played as much and they were ready to take their opportunity.
“It’s been well-documented now that, since Christmas, the players that have played regularly for the Under-23s, like Alex Babos, Calum Macdonald, Kellan Gordon, Emil Riis Jakobsen and Max Bird, who is just 16, have been a big reason why the results changed.”