De Havilland eyes pro deal
Will De Havilland believes the new and improved focus on bringing through young talent through at Millwall can help him make the step up to senior first-team football sooner than later.
The 17-year-old is one of a number of youth players desperate to earn a professional contract early next year which will give him the security and platform to build towards the big time.
Early indications suggest he's well on course having been highly praised by the likes of Lions youth team manager Scott Fitzgereld as well as making a big impression for Millwall in the Professional Development League - the structure that replaced the old reserves set-up this season.
Although predominantly geared towards under-21 players as part of the Premier League's Elite Player Performance Plan, which aims to revolutionise English football's widely-criticised youth development, there are often opportunities to come up against several established professionals.
With teams allowed to field three over-age outfield players, Will has come up against the likes of QPR stars Kieron Dyer and Alejandro Faurlin this season while many of the games are played at the clubs' main stadiums in an effort to give youngsters more of a taste of what becoming a professional will be like.
And De Havilland feels these experiences are already helping him improve significantly.
He said: "I've been involved in most Under-21s games this season and some of those get played in the main stadium, with quite a few senior professionals playing. It's a challenge but helps my game a lot.
"This is the final stepping stone into the first team. You start in the youth teams and then the U-21s is like the old reserves so you get a lot of pros who haven't been involved in the first-team playing in it as well as the young pros and second year scholars, like me.
"We played Cardiff recently and they had a very strong side out with 10 professionals who had played in the first team. When we played QPR earlier in the season they had Rob Hulse, Kieron Dyer and Faurlin all playing because they were coming back from injury and needed match fitness.
"Because they are big names it's really exciting playing against them because you know it will be a real challenge. I really look forward to it and know it will help my game a lot playing against Premier League standard forwards who have had 100s of league appearances."
De Havilland says Millwall have invested more time in improving their youth facilities in an effort to climb the Professional Development League structure and feels it will pay off.
He said: "Millwall have moved into a Grade 2 category so we're playing much better teams and the players we're up against are of a higher standard. It's really helping my game now.
"They've brought in a sports scientist this year and he helps us a lot with our diet and he's really strict about what we can and can't eat. They help out with the lifestyle in terms of when to rest and what we should be doing. They've got a lot of new staff in like physios and nutritionists as they've moved up into a Grade Two Academy. It's a lot better.
"Millwall are looking to the youth more now than ever. In the past they didn't so much but this new system means they've kept a lot more young players on and they've said they'll continue to do so. It's really good that they're planning to give us an opportunity to break into the first team."
Although this new and improved U-21 league is also seen as an alternative to clubs sending youngsters out on loan, Will still feels the opportunity to play against older players down the divisions would also benefit him.
He said: "The staff have been really positive to me and at the end of last year Scott Fitzgereld said he was aiming to get me in all the U-21 games this season and then loan me out to a lower league first-team to get experience playing with men.
"I think the plan is to get me out on loan around January, even if it's a Conference South team like Staines who I know the club use a lot."
De Havilland, who joined the club after impressing a scout during a trial at Fulham, will find out if he is awarded a professional contract next year and admits there is a rivalry with other youth players as not everyone can get one.
He said: "They make their decision around March or April. They either keep us on another year as a third-year scholar and we continue to play in the U-21s league or give us a pro deal. Even then, we're probably still likely to play in the U-21s league a lot but there would be more focus on breaking into the first team.
"We know there's a rivalry and we're always trying to outplay the other centre backs but at the same time we all get on with each other in training. You just have to prove yourself when it comes down to the games."
De Havilland has been seeking advice of Millwall's current first-team squad during training sessions and feels he has what it takes to emulate other young players who have been given pro deals.
"The skipper Paul Robinson is a great role model," he said. "The way he goes about his career is so professional - he trains so hard and eats all the right foods. He's always in the gym working on his body and trying to get better so I've got to look up to people like him and do the same.
"The youngest player who has been involved in the first team that I know is John Marquis - he's 20 now and he came through the youth set up. There's quite a few young pros like Jake Goodman and Aiden O'Brien who got their professional contracts last year.
"They're in the U-21s now but trying to break into the first team now and have got on the bench a few times. That's what I'm aspiring to."
De Havilland is determined to reach the top and knows what it takes. He said: "You've definitely got to be committed and there's only one way to get to the top and that's to work hard in training. You've got to be professional, take care of yourself and stay away from the bad things like drink and going out. It's only going to affect your performance in a bad way."