Millwall boss underlines desire to keep top young stars – as 15-year-old Zak Lovelace gets taste of the Championship big time

Gary Rowett has spelled out Millwall’s desire to hold on to their most promising youngsters after making Zak Lovelace the club’s second youngest debutant.

The striker – who does not turn 16 until January 23  – came on deep into stoppage time in the Lions’ 1-0 win at Coventry City on Wednesday night.

Lovelace, a pupil at West Dulwich’s Kingsdale Foundation School,  is 100 days older than Moses Ashikodi when he featured against Brighton in February 2003.

At one stage it looked as if Lovelace’s big moment might not happen as the ball  stayed in play until the final 90 seconds at the Coventry City Stadium.

Lions manager Rowett said: “I did say to the fourth official: ‘Can you please get the ref to give a free-kick?’.  There was an opportunity for us to get him on before that and the fourth official didn’t react quickly enough to tell the referee.

“I thought it was going to be one of those moments where the ball isn’t out of play and there’s a 15-year-old stood on the sidelines ready to make his debut. I was actually quite thankful they had a shot that missed, just because it allowed us to get him on. He had a big, big smile on his face and was desperate to get out there.

“We could have taken the easy route and put a senior player on there because we had Smudge [Matt Smith] left on the bench. But I just felt it was a game where we needed a bit of mobility at the end to stop them getting out.

“Young Zak makes a 50-yard sprint to try and stop them. He showed great appetite. He’s going to have a big career ahead of him, I’m sure.

“It shows the good work our academy are doing, but is also shows  we want these players in and around the first team – not being pinched by bigger clubs and just languishing in their academies and U23s.

“It was a shame for Nana [Boateng] and Bes [Topalloj], because they both worked incredibly hard and I’m sure they’d have loved that opportunity.”

Millwall needed permission from Lovelace’s parents and school for him to travel to the Midlands and be part of their matchday squad. He joined their academy at the age of 13 after previously being with Crystal Palace and Brighton.

He has scored 21 goals in 19 appearances for the South Londoners this season – featuring at U23, U18 and U16 level.

“At 15 he is probably as big a talent as I’ve seen,” said Rowett. “He’s been stepping up to the U18s and I think he scored a hat-trick in one game. He couldn’t be handled by players who are three years older than him.

“The challenge is to involve him regularly – it’s difficult when he is still at school. We’ll have to work with that and try and get him in with us when we can, maybe one day a week.

“He trained with us the other day and ran past one of our senior players like they weren’t there. You saw a young player who was really fearless, enjoying his football with none of the baggage that a senior player can sometimes have.

“Sometimes players step up in these situations and you find that little gem that maybe wouldn’t have had that opportunity.”

Lovelace could only travel up on the day of the game.

“There are welfare issues you have to go through,” said Rowett. “We can’t stick him in a hotel on his own – because of Covid the lads are all rooming on their own.

“He came up about four o’clock. It probably helped him as it didn’t allow him to get too nervous sitting around waiting for a game for a day and a half.

“He’s only trained with us three or four times. But he has shown a fearlessness in training. Even some of the other players have said: ‘Blimey, this kid’s got something about him’.

“We’ve got some great young players. Fitzy and his staff in the academy are doing a great job. We want to see them on the pitch in a Millwall shirt, not moving to a Premier League club and in someone else’s shirt. We want to open that pathway for them.

“As a club, all you can do is work hard with the youngsters – prepare them as well as you can – so we can try and give them that opportunity. It’s having a clear pathway for the likes of Billy Mitchell and Danny Mac, to go and make our team better and get into it.

“What you can’t stop along the way is agents and other clubs trying to take your players and doing things that might not be in the best interests.”




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