Darren Wassall believes everyone within the Derby County Academy set-up can look back on the 2020/21 season with a sense of positivity.
After the 2019/20 campaign was curtailed last year due to the impact of COVID-19, there was an element of uncertainty going into the season across the board.
Players returned to training after months away last August and, despite several lockdowns over the course of the campaign, the Under-23s and Under-18s’ games programmes were fulfilled.
The Under-23s, managed by Pat Lyons, finished sixth in Premier League 2 – Division 1 while Adam Robinson’s Under-18s claimed seventh spot in Under-18 Premier League North.
As well as seeing the continued development of the Academy’s players and coaches, several players from the youth system featured at first-team level.
The likes of Kornell McDonald, Jack Stretton, Louie Watson, Kaide Gordon, Cameron Cresswell and Festy Ebosele all made their senior bows and several other youngsters had opportunities to impress in training with Wayne Rooney’s squad.
In addition, a group of Under-23 and Under-18s players featured in the Emirates FA Cup Third Round tie at Chorley in January after the first-team squad were absent due to COVID-19 protocols.
Despite a 2-0 defeat, they did the club proud and rose to the challenge of competing in the famous cup competition.
The schoolboys’ games and training programme was impacted, however, but Wassall and his staff have been on hand to offer support and find solutions for the younger age groups to continue their development.
Wassall believes that another year of competing at the highest level as a Category One Academy has provided plenty of positives.
The 52-year-old recently celebrated 12 years as the head of the Academy and admits the last year has been unique and unprecedented because of the pandemic – and is proud of how everyone has pulled together.
“I think it has been difficult for everybody with the COVID-19 restrictions that have been both on the first-team and the Under-18s and 23s since March 2020,” Derby’s Academy Director said on RamsTV’s latest episode of The Academy Review Show.
“It is a credit to everybody just how well everyone has adapted. That is not just the players, but also the coaches, the backroom staff and all the support staff.
“There have been challenging times, but I think we have been fortunate that we have all been able to come to work since last July and try and get as normal a season that we possibly could.
“We have been pleased with a lot of the stuff that has gone on, there is work to do and improvements, of course, but I think overall it has been another good year for the Academy.”
He added: “Our ethos in the Academy is trying to compete with the best in the country and this year it has shown again that hard work, dedication and honesty - coupled with ability - enables you to compete with the very best in the land.
“The proudest achievement for the Under-18s, the Under-23s and all the schoolboys is that again this year with all the adversity that has gone on, we are still competing at the top level.”
Wassall has admitted that the COVID-19 ‘bubbles’ have provided their own challenges during the season.
The club has prided itself on its interaction between the first team and Academy in recent years, to great success, but the UK Government and EFL guidelines have limited that opportunity in the last year to contain the spread of the virus.
There have been many other ways to communicate but having the face-to-face interaction has been a big miss, in Wassall’s opinion.
Wassall explained: “It has been difficult because particularly down at Moor Farm, the food area has been the natural social gathering point from everybody from Academy to first-team; players, non-players, and we haven’t had that since March 2020.
“Not being able to go down the corridor to see everybody has been strange and it hasn’t been normal.
“I have been here 12 years in this position, and this is obviously the first time we have had COVID-19, but the first time we haven’t physically been together as a club.
“I think everybody has really tried hard to bridge that gap whether it is Zoom calls or WhatsApp groups to try and keep that togetherness as much as possible.
“It has been a challenging time and hopefully we can put it all behind us now and when we start back in July that we get back to some normality, because I think everybody has missed that togetherness on a daily basis.”
Academy graduates and 2018/19 Under-18 Premier League winners Jason Knight, Max Bird, Lee Buchanan and Louie Sibley were all regular first-team squad members during 2020/21.
The quartet registered almost 150 appearances between them for Derby during the season and Knight made his senior debut for the Republic of Ireland towards the end of 2020.
On top of that, both Knight and Bird wore the captain's armband for the first-team during the season.
While it proved to be a challenging season on the pitch for Derby, avoiding relegation on the final day of the season, Wassall is convinced the youngsters will be all the better for the experience.
He said: “It is well-documented that it has been a difficult season for all involved for many different reasons and while they probably won’t think it right now, it will stand the young players that have been involved in the first-team this season in good stead for many years to come.
“When you are a young player, you want to be involved in the first team whether you are top of the league, mid-table or bottom of the league and the players have again shown they are capable of mixing it with the first-team.
“They will have learned loads from their experience and hopefully it will make them stronger and better next season.”
The knock-on effect of several youngsters joining up with the first-team over the season, as a reward for their form or to cover for injuries, has presented opportunities for others to impress further down the latter.
The domino effect has offered chances to shine at both Under-23 and Under-18 level, perhaps earlier than anticipated, but Wassall sees that as a positive for everyone in the short-term and long-term.
He said: “It has probably been the biggest challenge over the last few years to keep everything going in the Under-18s and Under-23s.
“That’s not anyone’s fault, but just the fact that circumstances have dictated that a lot of the Under-23s have been involved in the first team on a regular basis, whether in training or filling the bench as well.
“The coaches and the players, the rest that have been left behind in the Under-18s and Under-23s, have had to be really adaptable on a weekly basis. The team has changed probably every week because a lot of the young players have trained with the first team and have not been available.
“There has been a lot of toing-and-froing, which we have always said gives the younger players opportunities that they probably wouldn’t have had so early in their career.”
Wassall concluded: “There have been a lot of first and second-year scholars playing in the Under-23s and they have all acquitted themselves well and will be stronger, just like the players that have been involved in the first-team.
“The scholars will have learned loads and loads from their experiences in the Under-23s and it will have pushed them to their limits. We are hoping that when they come back next year, they will be all the better for what they have had to go through this year.”