“I don’t care how they get in – Covid, illness, injury or suspension. Most times people get their opportunity through circumstances. It is up to them to take it. It is why they have got to be ready.”
Scott Fitzgerald’s ultimate goal is to produce players for Millwall’s first team. And the long-serving academy manager knows that those first steps in the spotlight are not always carefully choreographed.
Danny McNamara and Billy Mitchell have both become regulars at senior level. And winger Nana Boateng, 19, made his debut as a late substitute in Saturday’s FA Cup tie against Crystal Palace.
Streatham-raised Zak Lovelace, who turns 16 on January 23, became the club’s second youngest debutant when he came on in the 1-0 win at Coventry at the end of last month.
Fitzgerald had driven Lovelace and his father up to the match on the day of the game. Protocols meant they also had to get permission from the forward’s school for him to feature.
Injuries and Covid might have been key in opening the first-team door for the club’s youngsters in recent weeks – Besart Toppaloj has been an unused substitute as well – but Fitzgerald, 52, feels exactly the same pride when he sees them make such a significant step in their embroynic careers.
“It’s the reason you do the job,” said the former defender, who joined the Lions academy in 2007. “There is such a small percentage that get through. It is our job but it’s also our passion to see our players develop and get into the first team.
“I really try my best to be there for their debuts. It was a bit unique and special taking Zak and his dad up for the Coventry match, I’d never done that before.
“He had a little sleep on the way up. He didn’t look to be a bundle of nerves in the car, but most probably because we were talking quite a lot. We spoke about everything, not only football – things we’d watched on TV – just trying to take the focus off.
“I was there on Saturday to see Nana make his debut. He is someone I’ve known for a very, very long time – and his parents. You couldn’t meet a nicer boy. He has been with us since eight years old and gone on a journey. That’s the ideal scenario – that we get them at an early age and they learn everything about Millwall, all the values, and they have a good career with us.
“I didn’t know Zak was going to come on that night or Nana on Saturday. It is the manager’s choice and I’m just thankful I was there to see it.”
One of Millwall’s most successful periods of their academy saw Tim Cahill, Steven Reid, Paul Ifill and Lucas Neill come through the youth system – becoming key components of Mark McGhee’s side which won the Second Division title in 2001.
Fitzgerald has talked before about “testing the mettle” of youngsters by playing them above their age group.
“It’s not a one size fits all,” he said.
“Some players are able to do it because of their physical capabalities. But some are not, so we’ll stretch them out in different ways.
“We do like to play players up. We like to have small groups, which enables our players to get lots of minutes. The difficulty is playing players up and then bringing them back to their own age group.
“Development is quite messy. It’s not one straight line – it’s not always going to be nice and it’s not always going to be great. Dealing with that, for a young player, is difficult. We’ve got to make sure we’re there as staff to support the parents.”
Millwall are in one of the UK’s top breeding grounds for producing the stars of the future. South London has long been heralded for the talent that has gone on to the top of the domestic game.
But that also brings competition from massive clubs – either in terms of signing a prospect or keeping hold of them in the longer term.
Manchester City signed Darko Gyabi, then 14, in November 2018, and Lewisham-born Samuel Edozie for a seven-figure fee in July 2019. A year later and Norwich City prised Harry Brooke away.
“South London is a hotbed of talent and everyone is active there – not just London clubs,” said Fitzgerald. “We try and be the best we can in South London. We’ve got Crystal Palace and Charlton, who do a good job in the area as well.
“It is difficult, it is competitive – but that’s how we like it.
“We want to compete and punch above our weight. Having Danny and Billy in the side has definitely, definitely helped us in terms of recruitment – because we can show players and parents a pathway. It’s fine talking about it, but can you demonstrate it? Obviously we can.”
Fitzgerald adeptly sidesteps naming any players he has worked with that have been standouts coming through the ranks.
“You see some that you think ‘this boy has got it’ and then, two or three years down the line, where is he? Then you get others who are little slow-burners. Danny Mac and Bill were good players, don’t get me wrong, but they weren’t jumping out. I love the way those two have developed – and both differently.
“Danny’s had lots of loans while Billy has stepped straight in. I love watching them play. They have developed into good players but also really good young men. They are great role models. We use them quite a lot in the academy, they come across and do stuff for us.”
Millwall have also got Alex Mitchell out on loan at Leyton Orient while Tyler Burey was impressing for Hartlepool before a major hamstring injury.
Orient while Tyler Burey was impressing for Hartlepool before a major hamstring injury. Isaac Olaofe is on a second stint with Sutton United.
“That market has been brilliant for us in the last 18 months,” said Fitzgerald. “I would say prior to that we weren’t active enough in it.
“Some do need to experience different environments and different changing rooms. We’ve made an individual plan for all the guys. Alex started at Bromley last season, did well and that enabled him to go on to Orient.
“Tyler has been to Hartlepool. We wanted to break that barrier of getting our players on loan. Once we got one or two out, we have not got quite a few players interested in our clubs now.
“We’re not looking for just any club. That’s where we’ve improved dramatically. It’s all about our player – the individual.
“A club can be looking for a left-back. Well, if you don’t know who our left-back is then you’re probably not going to get him.
“Clubs should be doing their homework before coming to us or looking for a player.
“We do as much background as we can on the loan club, the manager, the stadium, the pitch and the formation. If it’s not the right choice then we’ll keep them with us.”
Millwall are in talks with Lovelace over signing a professional contract.
Fitzgerald said: “He is 15 and has been in and around our first team for the last three or four games, so I’m not sure what more you can want? I’ve been here 15 years and it had never happened before.”
John Bostock made his debut for Palace at the age of 15 in 2007 but opted for Tottenham.
Now 28, he is playing for Doncaster Rovers – his 14th club in a nomadic career that saw him rebuild his reputation in Belgium.
Fitzgerald describes it as “quite demotivating” for staff when a crown jewel does go.
“People will have put a lot of hard work in that doesn’t get seen when one of our players makes their debut,” he said. “They don’t see the years that have gone in prior, they just see the end product.
“It’s not something we’re entirely happy about. But I’m quite philosophical about it – if you’re a good player in our first team then someone will come and buy you, simple as that.
“It’s within the rules at academy level. If we didn’t have clubs interested in our players then we might have a problem – that’s telling you we haven’t got any good players!
“It’s our job to try and protect them and show they can achieve what they want to achieve with us.
“There are no guarantees. I can understand people wanting to move on from any club. The reasons behind it are the key.
“Gary is showing there is an opportunity here if you’re good enough. Do you want to be a professional footballer, or do you want to have a career? They are two different things.
“I see a lot of players having one or two-year professional contracts. But if you want to have a real career you’ve got to be at a club that are going to give you that opportunity.”
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