The next generation of young players aiming to make their mark in the Barclays Premier League were able to gain valuable experience last weekend with many making their first-team debuts in The FA Cup third round.
A total of 18 players made their first senior appearance with all having featured in the Barclays Under-21 Premier League or the Under-21 Premier League Cup this season. Both competitions are a key part of the Premier League's Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), which was launched at the start of the 2012/13 campaign with the aim of developing more and better home-grown players.
Chelsea midfielder Lewis Baker, who was a late substitute for Oscar in his side’s 2-0 victory over Derby County on Sunday, believes making his first-team bow was an important moment.
"At our age we're always trying to improve and show what we're capable of"
"It was great that I came on, not just for me but for the Academy as well," the 18-year-old told the Chelsea website. "I've been here a long time and it shows that if you work hard enough you'll be able to get your chance.
"Right now I have just got to keep working hard for the Under-21s and in the UEFA Youth League, and hopefully between now and the end of the season I can get in the first team again.
"It was probably one of the best things that has ever happened to me. [Manager] Jose Mourinho just said, 'Good luck and enjoy the experience,' while every single player has been great to me as well. They've been helping me along and giving me lots of advice, telling me to just play my normal game and try and enjoy the experience."
Forward Chris David, a regular for Fulham's high-flying U21 side this season, played the full 90 minutes for the Cottagers in their 1-1 draw against Norwich City and provided the assist for Darren Bent’s opening goal.
"Anyone that has been following the Under-21 games this season will know that we're in first place and we're unbeaten, and that's because we have a lot of good players," he told the Fulham website. "We've been given an opportunity by the new head coach, which is good because it shows that we’re doing well. At our age we're always trying to improve and show what we're capable of. Hopefully we can continue to do that."
"The technical side of my game has improved so much with the Under-21s"
Duncan Watmore has appeared in all 10 of Sunderland's Under-21 matches this season to help the team move to third in the table and the striker came on with 27 minutes to go against Carlisle United and forced a good save from goalkeeper Greg Fleming as the Black Cats recorded a 3-1 victory.
"Every kid dreams of playing football of this standard in their career and, to get that chance now, I'm over the moon," the 19-year-old told the Sunderland Echo. "I'll keep working hard to see where it goes.
"[Senior professional development coach] Kevin Ball and the rest of the staff have been great to me. They've helped me get bigger, quicker, fitter and the technical side of my game has improved so much with the Under-21s, too."
However, it was not all plain sailing for the debutants over the weekend as Baker's appearance meant he had to perform a Chelsea ritual, singing a song in front of his team-mates.
"I sung Hold on, We're Going Home by Drake. It was nerve-racking," he added. "I was anxious about it because I knew it was coming sooner or later. I didn't know when though, so every time I sat down for dinner I was a bit nervous."
The Under-21 players to make their first-team debuts in the FA Cup
- Jed Steer - Aston Villa. Age: 21, U21 appearances this season: 1
Joined Aston Villa from Norwich City last summer and kept a clean sheet on his debut against Rotherham United in the Capital One Cup. Stands at 6ft and has been taken under the wing of first-team goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who has described him as confident and composed.
- Lewis Baker - Chelsea. Age: 18, U21 appearances this season: 9
Signed from Luton at 9, he captained Chelsea's Under-21 side last season despite being one of the youngest players. Baker is a central midfielder who is creative, technical and can use both feet.
- Hiram Boateng - Crystal Palace. Age: 18, U21 appearances this season: 8
A central midfielder who made an impressive debut in an FA Cup third-round replay at Stoke City last year.
- Chris David - Fulham. Age: 20, U21 appearances this season: 7
Joined from FC Twente last January, David is an attacking midfielder who can play in the No 10 role.
- Lasse Vigen Christensen - Fulham. Age: 19, U21 appearances this season: 11
Had a trial at Arsenal before signing for Fulham in 2012. The midfielder is one of Denmark's most promising youngsters. Shone for Kit Symons' Fulham Under-21s last season.
- Dan Burn - Fulham. Age: 21, U21 appearances this season: 0
A 6ft 6in centre-back, he was on loan to Yeovil Town whom he helped to promotion from League One last season by scoring the winner in the play-off final. A solid, key performer for Birmingham City on loan this season before being recalled by Fulham this month.
- Ange-Freddy Plumain - Fulham. Age: 18, U21 appearances this season: 7
Midfielder, signed from French Ligue 2 side RC Lens, where he made 22 appearances and scored one goal, in June 2013 on a three-year deal.
- Calaum Jahraldo-Martin - Hull City. Age: 20, U21 appearances this season: 0
A physical player who can play on either wing or behind a striker. He scored two goals in the Isthmian League Division One South for Dulwich Hamlet before joining Hull over the summer after impressing on trial. After watching him play for the reserve squad, first-team manager Steve Bruce described him as a "breath of fresh air".
- Jacob Murphy - Norwich City. Age: 18, U21 appearances this season: 8
At Carrow Road with identical twin Josh, Jacob is a quick winger and was a key part of Norwich City's FA Youth Cup-winning team last season. Signed a new contract until 2017 with Josh just before Christmas.
- El-Hadji Ba - Sunderland. Age: 20, U21 appearances this season: 3
A French youth international of Senegalese descent, midfielder Ba joined from Le Havre in the summer. Made his Sunderland debut as a substitute against Carlisle and scored to wrap up the 3-1 victory.
- Duncan Watmore - Sunderland. Age: 19, U21 appearances this season: 10
Also came off the bench to make his Sunderland debut against Carlisle and made an immediate impression. A striker, Watmore was Sunderland's first summer signing in 2013. He joined from Altrincham, where he scored 15 goals in 35 starts and picked up the Fans' Player of the Year and Goal of the Year awards.
- Sebastian Lletget - West Ham United. Age: 21, U21 appearances this season: 8
Born in San Francisco to Argentinian parents, he became the first player from West Ham United's International Academy to sign professional terms with the club in 2010. A midfielder, he has been tipped for a call-up to Jurgen Klinsmann's full USA squad.
- Callum Driver - West Ham United. Age: 21, U21 appearances this season: 10
Driver was at full-back on loan at Burton Albion in 2011-12 but was one of three centre-backs during his first-team debut against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup. He also captained the Under-21s.
- George Moncur - West Ham United. Age: 20, U21 appearances this season: 9
Like his father, former West Ham player John, George is a central midfielder. Named Young Hammer of the Year by West Ham Academy Director Tony Carr last season and has scored three goals in the Under-21s squad this campaign.
- Danny Whitehead - West Ham United. Age: 20, U21 appearances this season: 10
Recommended to West Ham by Dietmar Hamann, who worked with him at Stockport County Whitehead is an attacking midfielder.
- Matthias Fanimo - West Ham United. Age: 19, U21 appearances this season: 5
A pacey winger, Fanimo made his West Ham debut aged 18 against Crewe Alexandra in the Capital One Cup. Captained England Under-16s in the 2009 Victory Shield.
- Blair Turgott - West Ham United. Age: 19, U21 appearances this season: 9
Joined West Ham at 8 and is a winger. Has been on loan at Bradford City and Colchester United, where he scored his first senior goal.
- Reece Burke - West Ham United. Age: 17, U21 appearances this season: 1
Burke has been at West Ham since the age of 9. Played regularly under former Hammers defender Steve Potts in the Under-18 side and has since earned a call-up to the Under-21s.