Academy Director Darren Wassall says there has been a buzz around Derby County’s Moor Farm Training Ground after the Under-23s and Under-18s returned to training earlier this month.
The two senior age groups of the Rams’ Academy set-up reported back for pre-season ahead of the 2020/21 season on 1st August.
The 2019/20 Academy season was curtailed earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and brought a positive campaign for Derby’s youngsters to a premature end.
Both the Under-23s and Under-18s sat in fourth place in their respective divisions and, alongside the Under-19s’ involvement in the UEFA Youth League, had seen several players enjoy progressive seasons.
On top of that, the Academy was boosted by seeing several graduates – such as Max Bird, Jason Knight and Louie Sibley – step up and impress at first-team level under manager Phillip Cocu.
Preparations for the upcoming campaign, however, have been able to start in earnest although there are strict measures and protocols for all players and staff members to adhere to.
Wassall, who has led Derby’s Academy since early 2009, admits there is a sense of relief that work for the club’s youth system can begin to gradually resume.
“I think everyone is just happy to be back,” Wassall told RamsTV. “The staff started back on 27th July and working at Pride Park on the planning of the players’ return on the 1st August.
“It is great to see the players and staff in the flesh and have some socialisation other than on Zoom. It feels like we have spent most of the last four months checking in with each other on Zoom, so it is nice to get back to some proper work at the training ground.
“It is very different in how we have to work now; it is very strict with temperature checks and the non-negotiable process of completing the COVID-19 questionnaire each morning before 8:30am.
“Things have changed. The first week mirrored the first-team in training being socially distanced and in small groups and the coaches and players have had to adapt, which they have done really well.”
At this stage, with many guidelines to follow, the club’s age groups between Under-9s and Under-16s are not able to return to the Academy.
Throughout the pandemic, which began to severely impact the United Kingdom in March, Academy staff have remained in regular contact with the young players and their parents via Zoom.
Wassall explained: “We left Moor Farm on 13th March and it wasn’t until 1st August we were able to walk through the doors again.
“The Under-23 and Under-18 players had a comprehensive training programme to follow and they have hit the ground running now. I think they are all grateful to be back on the grass again.
“The first-team were back in June training and finishing the season but for the Under 9-16s, Under-18s and Under-23s haven’t played or been able to train since March, which is tough for them.”
He added: “The players have been itching to get back. The Under 9-16s aren’t back yet, so we’ve remained in touch and tried to keep them engaged via Zoom. It is about keeping them involved as best we can.”
The Under-23 and Under-18 squads both have fresh looks ahead of the 2020/21 season.
Several players at the end of their scholarships have signed professional terms to step-up to the Under-23s, while as many as nine new faces have linked up with the Under-18s.
In addition, a handful of players from both age groups have moved on to pastures new at the end of their contracts.
It is a constant cycle that Wassall knows only too well and he is pleased that of the nine new first-year scholars, six of them have come through the Academy ranks.
As many as six players from the Academy made their first-team bows during the 2019/20 season and the Rams’ Academy Director believes that itself offers inspiration to the club’s talented youngsters.
“It is a cycle, as always,” Wassall said.
“A number of players have stepped up to the first-team and that is great and the aim for us. Naturally, we have released a few players and retained the services of others.
“We have retained six players from the Under-16s within the Academy, that have been with us for many years, as well as three new recruits from outside after they impressed on trial. We have nine new scholars in total to join in with the second-year scholars.
“We’re looking forward to working with them all and we hope they can make a big impression. In every age group we have talented players and you do not like to put pressure on them by naming names.”
He added: “I think when you see some of the players adapting to life in the first-team after being in the Academy, it offers inspiration to others to say ‘that could be me’.
“Everyone wants a piece of it and if they work hard enough, and if they are good enough, they will get an opportunity. As a player, that’s all you can ask for.”
The 2020/21 Academy season will include some changes to the structure of Premier League 2 Division 1 and Division 2.
Three new Category 1 Academies - Burnley, Crystal Palace and Leeds United - will enter Division 2 for the upcoming campaign, meaning Division 1 will comprise 13 teams and Division 2 will feature 14 teams.
Derby’s Under-23s, for the fifth season in a row, will compete in Premier League 2 Division 1.