The 2019/20 season so far has seen an incredible rise of a handful of Derby County Academy products with the likes of Morgan Whittaker earning his right to play in Phillip Cocu’s first-team squad.
The first-year professional had an outstanding goal tally across Academy games during the 2018/19 campaign, netting 24 times and adding 16 assists across 37 Under-18s and Under-23s appearances.
His lethalness in front of goal helped the Under-18s to lift the Under-18s Premier League title, which in turn saw him and a group of other starlets start pre-season with the senior squad.
With the arrival of Cocu on the first-team’s training camp in Florida back in July, Whittaker said from the offset the manager gave the youngsters the confidence that their hard work and proving their readiness on the training pitch would give them the opportunity to fight for first-team places.
Since then, the 19-year-old has made 17 senior appearances, with his debut and full debut coming in the Carabao Cup against Scunthorpe United then Nottingham Forest.
That was soon followed by his Sky Bet Championship debut when he came off the bench against Hull City in November - and hree appearances in the FA Cup, where he faced Premier League opposition Crystal Palace and Manchester United, followed in early 2020.
Speaking on the faith the manager has shown in him, Whittaker told dcfc.co.uk: “The confidence from the manager has always been there.
“At the start of the season and bringing all the young lads in, he had a word just saying that the better we are playing, just show the aggression and what you know you can do then you will get more minutes.
“Even in training, what you show you can do there can help get you more minutes. I think that every day in training is just as important as a game day.”
When Whittaker hasn’t been in the first-team squad, he has dipped back in to play for the Under-23s and in the Under-19s’ historic debut campaign in the UEFA Youth League.
Cocu has previously stated the importance of the youngsters dropping back into Academy games for their development and showing the right attitude to playing.
Whittaker has certainly shown that, contributing to ten goals in his ten starts for the Under-23s while adding five goals and two assists in four starts in the UEFA Youth League.
The forward admitted that he is happy to play in any Derby squad so that he can continue to improve and show the coaches what he can do.
“I am just happy to play football because I think last year when you are look and you are not in the first-team you are thinking ‘I’d just be happy to be on the bench’,” he explained.
“When you get to be on the bench, you are just happy to be playing, then you want to be starting.
“Even playing with the Under-23s or the Under-19s it is another opportunity to show why I should be starting in a matchday or in a matchday squad.”
Speaking on reuniting with his National Title-winning teammates in European action, he added: “During last season we had such a good team spirit in the changing rooms every day, which people didn’t see.
“I think that being able to bring that back this season, all the lads love it and I think that’s why we’ve been performing so well when everyone gets back together because of the team moral and how it was last year.”
Whittaker is one of four players from last season’s Under-18s squad to receive his debut this season, joining Jason Knight, Lee Buchanan and Louie Sibley, while Max Bird continues to kick-on with the first team after his involvement last season.
All but Knight, who joined from his team in Ireland before his Apprenticeship with the club, have been in the Rams’ Academy since they were nine or ten and Whittaker believes it is their love of playing and eagerness to stay grounded that has impacted their success.
The England Youth International added: “The way we are as players, we will just get on with any situation and never think we are too big for a certain game.
“We just enjoy playing football, we want to win and show everyone what we can do at Derby County and if Manchester United can do it, then we can show that we can do it as well. It is the attitude that everyone has, not just us five.
“A lot of credit goes to everyone in the team last year, the Under-23s this season and everyone in the Academy. It is just showing that Derby can do what the bigger teams are doing.”