Belper Town U21s manager Wynne Garnett is encouraged by the talented crop of young players at the club, as he prepares his side for a season-defining seven days.
The U21s are fighting on two fronts as their campaign reaches its climax with the prospect of a league and cup double within touching distance of the young Nailers.
Garnett’s side sit four points clear at the top of the Worksop Vans Hire North Midlands Development Football League U21s South division with two games to go.
Only one team can catch them - Carlton Town, who are six points behind - but before they look to wrap the league up, they face AFC Mansfield in the League Cup final.
The young Bulls won the competition and finished second in the league last season so Garnett is under no illusions as to the size of the task his players will come up against.
“They’re a good side,” said Garnett. “We played them once this season and beat them 5-3 at home in what was a tough game and a tight game. We play them again in the league on Monday night too.
“We have two games against them in quick succession in what we hope will be a successful end to the season for us. The way we’re playing at the moment we’re not too frightened of playing anyone.”
It is a ‘dramatic’ turnaround from 12 months ago.
In their first year running the U21s set-up Nailers finished bottom of the same league, but hard work and time to nurture the players’ talents has seen them flourish.
“We had quite a young side last year and it was a learning experience for us because after a couple of teams withdrew from the league we finished bottom,” said Garnett.
“Last year was quite tough and this year has been a dramatic turnaround with mostly the same group of players. We’ve had a bit of time to work with the players and it’s paying off.
“A lot of the lads were 17 or 18 last season in the under-21s league. We’ve worked with them over the last year or two to get them used to playing at that sort of level.
“We’ve had time to work on shape. We want to be encouraging of young players so if they’re enjoying what they’re doing they are going to play well, it creates a positive environment to learn.
“We’ve got some good coaching as well. In the last couple of months we’ve brought in a chap called Tony Taylor, who used to coach the under-16s at Burton Albion, he’s UEFA A qualified.
“We’ve got some good links with the club’s first team as well. I’m in regular touch with the first team manager Charlie Palmer and he’s taken some of the sessions.
“So far this season we’ve had seven under-21s appear for the first team. For us that’s more important than doing well as a side in many ways because we’re looking at progression.
“We want to help them move on and hopefully start regularly for the first team.”
Garnett has been coaching junior sides at the club for more than a decade after starting out when his youngest, Evan, first pulled on his boots aged 11. Garnett senior coached the team through to U18s before he took over son’s Dylan’s team to the same age.
Seven U21s players - Laurence Constable, Sam Birks, Mark Rathbone, Fenwick Butcher, Mason Barker, Joe Hunt and Alistair Broughton - have all featured for the first team this season.
“I’ve worked with a lot of these players from a young age,” said Garnett. “I think they’re very good. The jump from U21s to first team is a very big one when you come up against adult men.
“Our experience with the transition is that it doesn’t tend to be a linear movement. It’s unusual to get players who step straight into the first team and it takes off for them.
“It might be two steps forward and one step back. It’s often a gradual process and can take time. We’ve got some very good players.”
And added: “We must thank Storage 4U; without them we wouldn’t have been able to afford to run the side.”