KEVIN Nugent admitted loan moves are the likeliest route for Millwall under-23s to gain first-team experience after seeing his side end their league campaign this season with a 2-1 win over Burnley last week.
It was a strong Millwall team at The Den, Fred Onyedinma and Ryan Tunnicliffe scoring and Ben Thompson also starting after his recent injury.
But it is the younger players who will be wondering where their futures lie. Kris Twardek started after playing 18 minutes for Carlisle the previous weekend (loan players can play in under-23 games for their parent clubs).
Christian Mbulu, who joined the club almost three years ago, hasn’t got his first-team chance yet and with Millwall securing their place in the Championship, a breakthrough in the near future is unlikely.
Manchester United academy boss Nicky Butt said recently that 20-, 21 year-olds who are still playing under-23 football are unlikely to make it through to the first team if they haven’t already been close to it.
Nugent pointed out that given how successful the recruitment for the first-team squad has been, it has meant younger players haven’t got their chance this season.
And he agrees with Butt that it is an uncertain time for players in their early 20s.
“I think there is a bit of truth in what he says,” under-23 boss Nugent admitted. “The 23s gives you the scope to play some over-age players and lads that have come back from injury.
“You need to give players time, but sometimes at 21, 22 if you haven’t been in and around your first team it might be difficult.
“The first team are doing so well, there is a gap there to under-23s football. I think moving forward players need to get themselves out on loan at decent levels. It has to be the right loan.
“Sometimes they might be clocking up a couple of hundred games before they even get near a Championship side. That’s the way it might be moving forward and we have to be patient with these lads.
“The recruitment for the first team has been so good, it’s a fantastic standard. It is tough for lads to break through. It’s all about results in the first team and they have to be trusted if they go in.”
Last Monday’s fixture was effectively Millwall’s reserve team. Jason Shackell and Harry Toffolo were in defence, Aiden O’Brien in midfield while Dave Martin played in goal.
Onyedinma took his goal superbly, taking a touch inside the box before turning and curling into the far corner. Before half-time, Tunnicliffe applied the finishing touch to an excellent passing move involving nearly every outfield player.
Nugent praised those senior players more used to playing in front of 15,000 fans rather than the handful of spectators that were at The Den last week.
“The attitude was spot on and whenever any of those lads have played for the 23s their attitude has been like that,” Nugent stressed. “We’re a club that, in the scouting circles, everyone knows we try to do it right.
“That comes from the top down. I’m really proud to work for a club like that, that has a fantastic mentality. I speak to other scouts and players and they know if players come here they have to have the right attitude. We expect it, but it’s still pleasing when you see it.
“It’s been an up-and-down season in terms of results, there have been some fantastic performances, which is most important, individually and collectively. It’s always nice to win but the individual performances have been pleasing.
“We’ve been planning for the summer already. We’ll be speaking to players, they will have individual fitness programmes. We’ve taken five scholars into our group. They will be working through the summer.
“Players will have individual plans, focusing on what they need to work on and improve on.”
Millwall are hoping to unearth the next Mahlon Romeo – who joined the club three years ago this month after being released by Gillingham – and featured two on-loan players against Burnley.
David Ajiboye, 19, a right winger from Brighton joined on January after playing in the Football League Trophy earlier this season.
Jordan Allan came on in the second half to play up front alongside Onyedinma. Allan, 19, became the youngest-ever player to play senior football in Scotland when he made his debut for Airdrie aged 14.
They are effectively on trial at the club trying to earn deals.
Nugent explained: “At this stage of the season there are players coming in and going out. There are players leaving other clubs so we want to make sure we don’t miss out. It’s all part of the recruitment process.
“It’s constantly evolving and you’re always looking for better than what you have got. That’s the nature of the beast. They will come in and train hard and see if they can improve us.”
What next for Millwall youngsters?
Mbulu was one of the first signings of the Neil Harris era, plucked from non-league football in the summer of 2015.
He has yet to play for the first team – though has been in Harris’ squad – and played three times on loan at Braintree last season.
He is out of contract in the summer.
McNamara only turned 18 in December and has good first-team prospects.
He is quick and skilful and has been a regular in Nugent’s side this season.
Harris showed how highly he rated McNamara when he took the then-16-year-old to Dover for a pre-season friendly in 2016.
One to watch for the future.
Only turned 21 last month but another youngster at an important career juncture.
He is also out of contract in the summer and given Millwall will be playing Championship football next season and will add more quality to their squad the path to the first team for Twardek looks tricky.
Donovan joined Millwall in 2017. His talent was earmarked early when Arsene Wenger invited him to join first-team training before a Champions League game with Monaco.
Donovan has been a regular for the under-23s for two seasons but hasn’t got close to the first team. Out of contract in the summer.
Chesmain made his senior debut as a 17-year-old when he came on as an 83rd-minute substitute for Shane Ferguson in a 1-0 win over Bury in November 2015.
Since then, he has spent time on loan at Welling and Boreham Wood in the National League.
His deal runs out at the end of June.
Image: Millwall FC