Looking back to 12 months ago, Morgan Whittaker never imagined that he would have racked up 17 first-team appearances for Derby County at this stage of the 2019/20 season.
Whittaker is one of five Derby County Under-18s’ Premier League title winners from last season to step up and integrate full-time in Phillip Cocu’s squad and his work on the training pitch has been regularly rewarded with match minutes.
He has made three starts, including a place in the starting XI for the Emirates FA Cup Third Round victory at Premier League Crystal Palace in January, and a further 14 outings off the bench following an impressive 2018/19 campaign.
He scored 24 goals from just 37 appearances for Derby’s Under-18 and
Under-23 teams combined, while he also claimed 16 assists, taking his
goal contributions for the season to 40.
For the 18-year-old, however, the mindset remains the same from his time in the Academy to now in senior football - to not be complacent and keep pushing for more.
Sometimes, that means playing back in the Under-23s or Under-19s to keep playing and impressing - and he's loving every minute of being in the Rams' first-team set-up.
“I don’t think much different to last season in terms of my mindset,” Whittaker told dcfc.co.uk.
“I just take every day as it comes because being in the first-team environment, you can be in the squad one game then not at all in the next. I want to be starting as much as possible and keep pushing and taking every opportunity, even if that is ten minutes or a half.
“I think as you go to a senior level, it is more the stuff off the pitch that you have to deal with.”
He added: “I think sometimes you can think you are doing well but then you are not in the squad and the next week you can be on the bench.
“It is about taking the opportunities when they come, even if you only get a couple of minutes here and there it can go a long way. Training every day and the importance of doing well in training can set you up for the match.
“It’s even more important to keep your body right too, learning how to recover quickly and make sure you are ready to go because the games come so much quicker.
“Even for training you need to make sure you are ready to go so you can prove why you should be in the squad.”
The England youth international forward, who signed a contract extension with the club earlier this season, proved he was ready to make his first step up when Derby took on Scunthorpe United in the First Round of the Carabao Cup in August when he replaced fellow Academy product Jason Knight in the 87th minute.
His full debut soon followed, coming in the same competition when the Rams travelled to the City Ground to face Nottingham Forest - and his league bow came in November against Hull City.
Having been at the club since Under-8s and having lived in both Nottingham and Derby, making his first start in a local derby was another big moment for Whittaker who is determined to earn more starts and minutes for the club.
“It was a really proud moment for me and my family when I came on at Scunthorpe,” Whittaker said reflecting on the moment. “My dad and brother like to come to most games, even if it’s away so they were both there to see it as well.
“Looking back then to where I am now, even last season, I didn’t think what’s happened this season would be possible. It just shows that if you stick with it then what you want will come out of it.”
Whittaker added on his full debut: “Soon after that, I made my full debut. I’m from Derby then moved just passed Nottingham, so a lot of people I went to school with are Forest fans.
“Just to play in that game and the occasion with that many people there was just a bit surreal, but they are the games you want to be playing in.
“I got a few texts from my friends, but only saying ‘well done’ and stuff like that. No one actually gave me stick from it. Everything has just happened so quickly, and I am loving it.”