Darren Wassall believes Phillip Cocu deserves praise for placing faith in Derby County’s youngsters.
The Derby boss oversaw a tenth-placed finish in the 2019/20 Sky Bet Championship campaign following his appointment as manager in July 2019.
On top of that, Cocu handed 7,946 match minutes in the Championship season to players under the age of 21.
That number was the highest in the league by some distance, with Swansea City the nearest side on 6,110 minutes.
Amongst those players to rack up first-team minutes were Academy graduates Max Bird, Jason Knight, Louie Sibley, Morgan Whittaker and Lee Buchanan.
The quintet all contributed to the Under-18s title-winning 2018/19 season and went on to make the transition from Academy football to the first-team environment in the 2019/20 campaign, while Jayden Bogle also continued his impressive form under Cocu.
Cocu arrived at Derby with a track record of nurturing and developing young talent and Wassall, the club’s Academy Director, says he has enjoying watching their progression under the Dutchman.
“Full credit to the manager,” Wassall said in an interview with RamsTV. “He has come in this season and been brave enough to play the young players and believe in them as the future of the club.
“It is one thing having good young players, but it is another as a first-team manager to back, trust and keep playing them even when they have a dip in form.
“I think the Academy is only as good as the first-team manager and coaches in the sense what they are prepared to do with young players. Phillip Cocu and his coaching staff have really backed the young players and it has been a joy to watch.”
Bird, Knight and Sibley were the trio to have the biggest impact in their breakthrough seasons.
Midfielder Bird was named as the Players’ Player of the Season and Sammy Crooks Young Player of the Season after bursting onto the first-team scene at the midway stage of the campaign.
Republic of Ireland Under-21 international Knight, meanwhile, racked up six goals in 35 appearances from midfield after only making his senior debut at the start of the season.
Attacking midfielder Sibley enjoyed a strong end to the season as he scored on his league debut against Blackburn - Derby’s Goal of the Season winner - while he also netted a hat-trick at Millwall as the Rams returned to action following the suspension of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Six Academy graduates made their first team bows during the season in the form of Knight, Sibley, Whittaker, Buchanan, Jordan Brown and Jahmal Hector-Ingram.
The number of Academy products to feature for the first-team during the season totalled ten with Bogle, Bird, Max Lowe and Mason Bennett added to the mix.
Third-choice goalkeeper Henrich Ravas should not be discounted either, as he trained with the first team regularly and acted as cover for shot-stoppers Kelle Roos and Ben Hamer.
Wassall says Derby’s young players have provided a sense of pride across the Academy.
“The biggest compliment you can pay to the players that have been involved is that they have been in a first-team squad of 26/27 players on merit,” he said.
“Particularly since the suspension of the season, some of them were the first names on the team sheet for most of the games.
“That is a real credit to them and the progress they have made, not just over the course of the season but over a number of years in the Academy, and several of them were part of the Under-18s title win in 2018/19, which is unprecedented for a club like us in the Championship.
“Their progression hasn’t surprised anyone within the Academy because we know how talented they are. They are also good characters, made of the right stuff, and are passionate about the game.
“It shines through on the pitch and we are delighted for all of them. We have massive respect for the players as they have contributed to the first-team’s cause during the last year.”
Wassall has been the figurehead of Derby’s Academy since his appointment in the early months of 2009.
Since then, alongside the significant investment from Executive Chairman Mel Morris CBE, the Academy has attained Category One status and is held in high esteem.
The 52-year-old says the pathway from the Academy to the first team is clear for everyone to see and he believes that alone is something staff, players and parents can recognise and want to be associated with.
“It is a long-term development plan and I have said that a lot,” he said.
“We’ve had Louie Sibley and Max Bird for a long, long time in the Academy and where they are now is a culmination of hard work from everyone involved.
“I’ve said before, it isn’t down to us at the Academy. It is down to the players; they develop themselves really and their success is down to them. If we can help along the way and make sure they are on the right track, we take satisfaction from that.
“Seeing the lads in the team now gives such a boost to the staff, players and parents associated with the Academy. For them, they know they are at an Academy that means something and if you’re good enough and work hard enough, you’ll get a chance.”