Derby County Under-18s manager Justin Walker has claimed that the biggest achievement he could earn this season is getting more young players to progress into the first team set-up.
Whilst remaining humble about the incredible season his team had last time around, winning the U18 National Final against Arsenal at Pride Park Stadium in May, Walker is relishing the opportunity to work with a new-look side this term after seeing several players step up to the Under-23s.
After winning four of their five pre-season matches, Walker is excited to get back into the Premier League - North campaign.
“It is going to be an interesting season and I am looking forward to it,” he told dcfc.co.uk. “We have some great individual players and the makings of a great group. You can’t expect or believe you are going to have a similar season because it is a completely different group to what we had last season.
“Our trophies are in the first team. When our young players come from the academy and step out on to Pride Park with the first team, they become the trophies. Whilst it was nice winning silverware last year, my focus will always be on developing these players.”
Last season’s act will be a tough one to follow as Walker’s side powered to the top of under-18 football, winning the Premier League - North before eventually being crowned English champions after fighting back to beat Arsenal at Pride Park to clinch a place in the UEFA Youth League.
Of all the trophies the players won, though, Walker believes the greatest success was the aftermath of his players being included in the first-team setup.
“The whole club work very closely together and the pure focus is on the development of these young players,” acknowledged Walker. “To all of us, it is about getting them as close as we can to the top level.
“We had a great year last year as a team and every success they got was well deserved. They all put in a tremendous amount of hard work and they were rewarded for that.
“Over anything, the most positive success was that a lot of those players in that team have gone on to play in the first team during this pre-season. That experience is priceless.”
The likes of Louie Sibley, Lee Buchanan, Morgan Whittaker and Jason Knight have all been included in the first team during their pre-season campaign after featuring in the title-winning under-18s.
Finally, Walker expressed just how good the pre-season matches have been for the players and himself to improve collectively on and off the pitch.
He said: “I think it has been really positive. For me, pre-season is just about getting match fitness, game time, getting fitter and understanding the roles and responsibilities within the team.
“It is also a chance for the lads to develop a connection and a bit of that team spirit and togetherness.
“Off the pitch it has been positive too. Obviously, a lot of these players are new, and the new season always brings new challenges. The changes are what makes the job so exciting.
“There are different characters and different personalities and it’s now about me finding and coaching these characters ahead of the season. We are getting to know each other. I’m starting to get to know them just as they are doing with me, so it has been really good.”
Walker’s first challenge will come away to Everton on the opening day of the Premier League - North campaign on Saturday 10th August.