Paul Newman: Top of the class but still a long way to go

The Football League Column

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The Independent Online

Before Derby County fans get too carried away by the encouraging debut of 15-year-old Mason Bennett, they might care to reflect on the subsequent career of the player who previously held the record as the club's youngest ever first-teamer.

Bennett, who made his bow in a 2-0 defeat at Middlesbrough on Saturday at the age of 15 years and 99 days, takes over in the Derby record books from Lee Holmes, who made his first appearance on Boxing Day 2002 at 15 years and 268 days.

Holmes made just 46 appearances for Derby in six seasons, had loan spells at Swindon Town, Bradford City and Walsall and eventually moved to Southampton on a free transfer. His career disrupted by injuries, the speedy winger played only 23 times for the Saints in his first three seasons on the South Coast.

So much can depend on fitness, not to mention good fortune, as young players make their way in the game. Bennett has the advantage that he already shows remarkable physical maturity, even if he had to wait for his debut. Nigel Clough, Derby's manager, had considered playing him against Reading last week but decided against it because the lad had to be up early for school the next day.

"He's not bad for a kid of 15 years and 99 days is he?" Clough said after Bennett's impressive debut, in which only the width of the crossbar prevented him from becoming the youngest scorer in Football League history, a record set 83 years ago by Ronnie Dix, who at 15 and 180 days scored for Bristol Rovers against Norwich.

"It was a very mature debut," Clough said. "He got a little tired towards the end and gave the ball away a few times, but to play at this level like that was very impressive."

Clough added: "He didn't find out he was playing until 2pm so he didn't have too much time to get nervous. He didn't travel up with the team because he felt under the weather, but he drove up this morning to join us. He's done very well, but we can't expect that in every game and he won't be involved every week. That's too much to expect. He'll be back training with the under-18s next week because it is half-term from school."

Bennett played for the England Under-17 side this summer, scoring on his first start to earn a 1-1 draw with Norway. Earlier this month he featured in the England Under-16 team's Victory Shield opener against Northern Ireland at Chesterfield, which gave friends and staff from Shirebrook Academy the chance to watch their star pupil.

"A load of us went to see him," Andy Gilbert, Bennett's PE teacher and form tutor, told last week's Mansfield and Ashfield Chad newspaper. "It was very surreal seeing him in his England kit, but a great cheer went up when his name was called out and the night just got better and better. He was a man among boys."

Gilbert said Bennett's modesty was evident when he returned to school two days later. "Mason just came in at 8.30am and got on with things, as he usually does, even though everyone was talking about him," he said.

In October 2002 Wayne Rooney announced himself to the wider world with a thumping winner for Everton against Arsenal when he was 16.

The youngest scorer in Premier League history went on to become the youngest England international (17 years and 111 days) and the youngest England scorer (17 years and 317 days), though Theo Walcott went on to break both those records. Rooney also became the youngest player to be sent off in the Premier League (17 years and 59 days).

The youngest player to have appeared in the Football League is Reuben Noble-Lazarus, who came on as an 84th minute substitute for Barnsley at Ipswich three years ago at 15 years and 45 days. The record had previously been shared by Albert Geldard and Ken Roberts at 15 years and 158 days.

Geldard played for Bradford Park Avenue against Millwall in 1929, while Roberts played against Park Avenue for Wrexham in 1951.

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