Darren Wassall believes Derby County’s youngsters are already benefitting from manager Phillip Cocu’s philosophy of developing exciting young talent.
Upon his appointment as Derby’s new manager in July, Cocu arrived with a track record and proven ability to develop players to drive both tangible success and value.
During his time as manager of PSV Eindhoven, he guided his hometown club to three Dutch league titles during five full seasons in charge between 2013 and 2018.
Cocu’s team delivered exciting and highly successful football, whilst also demonstrating a strong ability to develop players.
Cocu promoted Memphis Depay to the PSV first team in 2012, prior to his big-money move to Manchester United, and he also played a key role in the development off Georginio Wijnaldum, now a Champions League winner with Liverpool.
Already in the opening weeks of the season, Cocu has embraced the youth coming through the ranks at Derby’s Academy.
Jason Knight, Lee Buchanan, Louie Sibley and Morgan Whittaker, all members of the Under-18s title-winning campaign in 2018/19, have made their first-team bows under the Dutchman.
In addition, recent Academy graduates Jayden Bogle, Mason Bennett, Max Lowe, Max Bird and Jayden Mitchell-Lawson have also gained first-team minutes in the opening weeks of the season.
Knight and Buchanan have also started the Rams’ last two league fixtures and Wassall, who has been the head of Derby’s youth system since 2009, believes years of hard work is coming to fruition under Cocu.
The Academy has held Category One status since 2014 and under Executive Chairman Mel Morris CBE significant investment has been made in the Academy and its facilities in recent years.
Wassall told the Academy Review Show on RamsTV: “The start to the season has been incredible really, we’ve got a new manager in and already we’ve seen four debuts which, in August, is extraordinary.
“It’s credit to all the hard work that’s taken place across the club and the Academy over the last ten years to see so many players progressing. The players primarily have to develop themselves, but everyone around the place has worked to help facilitate that development.
“It has always been a long-term development plan. This is my eleventh season as the Academy Director and young player development doesn’t happen overnight, but I think we’re seeing a lot of things coming to fruition.
“We’ve had players in the past, Jeff Hendrick and Will Hughes, that have come through the system and gone to the Premier League for lots of money and are doing well, but I think it also depends on the Manager or Head Coach. The players have always been there; some players have reached their potential because they’ve had an opportunity and others haven’t and have had to go elsewhere.”
He added: “The Academy is only really as good as the manager and in the sense that he is prepared to pick them. Some have embraced youth development, others haven’t.
“You can have the best facilities, all the money and everything else but it depends on the culture of who is in charge and what they want to do.
“That is not a criticism of anyone at all, it’s pure facts. Some managers want to play the young players, others don’t. Fortunately, we have a manager who is steeped in history when it comes to youth development from his time at PSV and he has brought that to Derby County.”
Wassall has made it clear that the youngsters have earned their opportunities on merit, following impressive showings at youth level.
A number of Academy players joined the first-team during pre-season and have since established themselves as regular members of Cocu’s squad.
Wassall says a big challenge for those that have made the step up is to show the resilience required to remain part of the Rams’ long-term future.
“Ultimately they have to be good enough and have to earn their shirt,” explained Wassall.
“We’ve not seen the odd game either, Jason Knight has made six appearances so far and Lee Buchanan has got a few under his belt too.
“All the lads have done tremendously well to get into the first-team training squad, the majority of which has been from the start of the season and the training camp in Florida, and then stay there and now they are getting their rewards.
“The manager and his staff have had a good period of time to look at them and decided they are good enough to play. That’s brilliant, getting there on merit, but we always remind our young players that making their debut is the easy part and that staying there is difficult.
“Obviously the last few results haven’t brought the results we’ve wanted as a club, so the players have to stand up and be counted and show the resilience to stick around.”
After over ten years overseeing the running of the Academy, Wassall understandably takes great pride in seeing the hard work behind-the-scenes bearing fruit.
Since his appointment, over 20 players from the youth set-up have appeared for the club at first-team level.
Standout names include Will Hughes and Jeff Hendrick, while the emergence in the last 12 months of Jayden Bogle has been eye-catching.
The Under-18s were named as National Champions last year, after defeating Arsenal 5-2 in the Final, and as a result will compete in the UEFA Youth League this season.
A number of the players that lifted the trophy at Pride Park Stadium in May had come through the ranks, which provided Wassall with a great deal of satisfaction, but he also believes the Academy’s recruitment at older age groups has equally been productive.
“Personally of course it’s nice to see these players that you’ve worked with for many years progress into the first team,” said the 51-year-old.
“I am the figurehead of the Academy, but there are so many members of our support staff that work tirelessly every day to help with the development on and off the pitch.
“There’s the investment from the club too, we’ve seen the facilities progress significantly. We invested in players a few years ago, of which Jayden Bogle is one of them. With the right investment we can make the right decisions to get good players in.
“Also, when we won the Under-18 National League last year which was simply a superb achievement for the club, we had seven players in that side that had come through the system here from Under-9s.
“Our programme is very diverse, and we want the best players from Derbyshire and beyond. We naturally want them to be with us as long as possible, but if we have to top up at the older age groups, we know that we can pinpoint the right players to come in. I think we have proven we can make good decisions.”