“When I was younger, and I’m not just saying this, Wayne Rooney was one that I looked up to,” Louie Sibley says, smiling, acutely aware someone once considered a faraway idol is now his captain at Derby County. “What he did for [Manchester] United and England was amazing and now to be here to learn from him is great. His aggression I have taken into my game. He has always had that bit of bite about him and that’s the way I play as well.”
But, these days, only one of them is regarded as one of the country’s most talented teenagers. When, during lockdown, Sibley uploaded a clip to social media of him navigating pelican crossings, supermarket aisles and footbridges while doing keepie-uppies on the three-mile journey home from a park in Burton-upon-Trent, the footage offered a close-up of the nimble footwork that has stirred excitement since he scored on his full league debut in March. “My brother came up with the idea and I thought: ‘Let’s give it a go.’ I’m not sure how he didn’t trip over either; it was a good laugh.”
Sibley, who turned 19 on Sunday, has attacked the Championship with a similar fearlessness, scoring a sumptuous hat-trick at Millwall on his second start. It was not the perfect night given the game was Derby’s first behind closed doors but Sibley ferried the match ball home and kept it in his bedroom overnight. Framing the shirt and boxing the ball, he says, is high on the to-do list, his raw enthusiasm endearing. “It was a game I will never forget and it means so much to me. I’m just a normal lad who grew up supporting Derby who has come through [the academy].”
The league is only 90 minutes old but Sibley is set to be one of the protagonists for a Derby side plotting a play-off push after falling short last season. He is at the core of Phillip Cocu’s youthful side, together with fellow academy alumni Max Bird, whom player-coach Rooney has said the Football Association should keep an eye on, and Jason Knight, both of whom he has played alongside since the under-14s.
Those three, plus Morgan Whittaker, started in last Saturday’s defeat by Reading and the club’s faith in youth – driven by the owner, Mel Morris, who previously stated a desire for 50% of the XI to be academy players – is clear. Jayden Bogle and Max Lowe left for Sheffield United for a combined £15m this month, and Will Hughes, another midfield graduate now of Watford, acts as inspiration for Sibley. “When I was coming through the academy, I looked up to him because he was breaking through. I always thought: ‘That could be me one day.’”
Sibley joined his boyhood club at the age of eight after trials at Stoke and Aston Villa, and it is easy to understand why his family were bursting with pride when he made his first start against Manchester United in the FA Cup, after Rooney informed him he would get his full debut. “We did XI v XI shape [in training] and he came up and told me I was starting the next day. He just said: ‘Enjoy it, work hard, you deserve your chance.’ After training or games, he will always speak to you if he spots anything that you could do to improve. Everyone at the academy and first-team staff said: ‘Enjoy it, it’s obviously a big occasion, live on television … but don’t let anything change, just keep playing your normal football, be confident and be fearless.’”
He is softly spoken but beyond the baby-faced guise and graceful close control there is a tenacious streak, which sometimes gets the better of him. There is a reason his parents called him the “firestarter”. After picking up six bookings and a red card last season, it took him 45 minutes to be cautioned in his first match of this Championship campaign and Sibley recognizes totting up bookings is a dangerous game. He feels he is ironing out “stupid fouls, the needless ones” but is reluctant to extinguish the skirmishing altogether.
“When I was seven and eight, I was getting into battles,” he says. “I play on the edge and I always want to win. Sometimes it goes over the top but in recent years I’ve managed to cope with it better. In the last couple of years, especially at youth level, I was picking up too many yellow cards and I was missing games through suspension. I’ve probably grown up a bit.”
Sibley, Bird, 19, and Knight, 20, have forged a telepathic understanding in midfield, which is perhaps no surprise given they are so close off the pitch. Together, along with Whittaker and Lee Buchanan, another youngster to make a mark in the first team, they were at the heart of the under-18 team that won the Premier League and reached the last 16 of the Uefa Youth League, edging out Borussia Dortmund along the way.
The Football League remains a fertile breeding ground for the next generation of homegrown players (35% of registered EFL players are English and under the age of 21) and funding for EFL youth development has risen by more than a third in the past five years. Derby’s category one academy, overseen by the club’s former defender Darren Wassall, is the envy of rivals.
At a time when anxiety and uncertainty weigh heavily on clubs, the last few weeks should be a cause for celebration across the Football League, the catalyst for mini-success stories. Kalvin Phillips, born and bred in Leeds, made his England debut this month and Ollie Watkins has joined Aston Villa after impressing at Exeter then Brentford, via a fruitful spell at Weston-super-Mare. Then there is Jude Bellingham, who is flying the flag for the EFL on the continent after scoring on debut at Dortmund. Eberechi Eze, too, has flown the Championship nest after dazzling at Queens Park Rangers and Wycombe. Ben White’s rise, via loans in League Two, League One and then last season with Leeds, is of great credit to those at Newport and Peterborough. In Sibley, the league has another burgeoning star.