Millwall youngsters catch the eye – but can they make first-team breakthrough?

MILLWALL boss Neil Harris anticipates it will be difficult for the club’s next batch of young players to bridge the “vast” gap to the first team – but praised their quality and the work of under-23 manager Kevin Nugent.

Tom Bradshaw may have caught the eye with his first Millwall goals, but some promising Lions youngsters impressed as the under-23s stretched their unbeaten league run to seven games with their 2-0 win over Watford last Friday.

Bradshaw scored twice in a team that also included senior players Jordan Archer, Shaun Hutchinson and Jem Karacan. The rest of the side were all aged 20 or under, Isaac Olaofe (above) and Mason Saunders-Henry in particular standing out. Gary Alexander’s 18-year-old son George came off the bench.

After releasing players in their early 20s such as Kris Twardek, Jamie Philpot and Christian Mbulu in the summer, Millwall – who operate a Category 2 academy – have tweaked their approach to Professional Development football this season, lowering the average age profile of the side.

Nugent still must balance that with playing senior players that Harris wants to ensure get game time, be they returning from injury or in need of competitive action. In their previous game against Charlton only Archer was over 20 of the starting XI.

Harris was asked this week by NewsAtDen if he could see some of those youngsters breaking through to the first team, and he responded: “Possibly. It’s hard with the group we’ve got there, because other than James Brown who’s been out and played 40 or 50 men’s games at the professional level, they are so young.

“The majority of them are first-year pros, some second-year pros in there, 18- and 19-year-olds. The gulf between playing 23s football and league football – let alone Championship – is so vast. To get the chance to play in our first team is extremely tough at their age.

“The last couple of years we’ve had a senior under-23 side with a lot of 20-, 21-year-olds trying to get them close to the first team and loaning them out. We’ve not necessarily seen the fruits of that.

“This year we’ve stripped it back and we’re playing all 18- and 19-year-olds to try to give them a pathway in the next two or three years to come through. Will it work? Who knows, it’s trial and error all the time.

“It’s a long-term process. We have players I hold in high esteem out on loan at the moment and in and out of League One teams, so it’s tough to break through.

“There were some strong performances [against Watford] and the fact that the group is seven games unbeaten and is probably one of the youngest sides in that category is testimony to the work they do on the training pitch and the qualities they’ve got, and to Kevin Nugent who works with them.”

Millwall, who are second in the southern section of their league, a point off Ipswich, are next in action on Monday, October 22 when they travel to QPR.

Image: Millwall FC 

John Kelly