1. Max Lowe (Derby, 19)
It’s been a whirlwind few weeks for Lowe, a talented 19-year-old left-back who has represented England at four different age levels. A first senior start in Derby's EFL Cup clash with Carlisle in August was followed by a substitute appearance against Liverpool in the following round, which proved to be a taste of things to come rather than a rare opportunity.
An injury to Craig Forsyth accelerated his introduction to the first team, with Chris Powell – who knows a thing or two about the full-back position – throwing Lowe in at the deep end in his first game as caretaker boss. The teenager was excellent as Derby beat Cardiff, nullifying Craig Noone and also providing an attacking threat with some dangerous runs down the left flank.
Steven McClaren was equally impressed in his first game back at the iPro Stadium, when he instucted each of his 10 outfielders to "dominate your opponent". Hadi Sacko, Leeds' right winger, was substituted after 58 minutes.
Lowe scores for Derby's U21s
2. Nathan Smith (Port Vale, 20)
Few endorsements carry as much weight at League One level as Tom Pope's, the archetypal lower-league battering ram of a centre-forward. His praise for Smith, who he proclaimed to be the real deal after watching him in training at Port Vale before his transfer to Bury, is therefore worth taking note of.
Loan spells at Stafford Rangers and Torquay prepared centre-back Smith for life in the third tier, while a direct duel with Bradford's burly frontman James Hanson on the opening day of the current campaign also helped to toughen him up. 'Smudger' has been instrumental in Vale's rise to 6th, playing every minute of their 14 matches so far.
3. Ollie Watkins (Exeter, 20)
Born in nearby Newton Abbot, Watkins has already earned admiration at St James Park with two goals in the Devon derby last April. Trailing 1-0 to Plymouth with 10 minutes to go, the talented playmaker brought the Grecians level with a snapshot from the edge of the box, then sealed a 2-1 win in stoppage time with a thunderbolt from 25 yards.
Those heroics came in the midst of a nine-goal burst in 11 matches, which reportedly attracted the attention of Bournemouth and Derby. Still only 20, Watkins can operate in a variety of positions behind the striker, with his concentration a particularly notable strength: 10 of his 11 career goals to date have arrived in the second half of matches and eight of them in the final 20 minutes.
4. Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham, 16)
The first player born in the 21st century to play at Championship level, Sessegnon is on a mission to ensure he’s remembered as more than just an answer to a trivia question. Links to Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool and both Manchester clubs in the summer meant his league debut against Leeds in August was highly anticipated; the left-back didn't disappoint, bursting into enemy territory and sending in dangerous crosses on several occasions.
Fulham academy director Huw Jenkins has praised Sessegnon's natural maturity, a quality which has given him a head start on his peers. "You shouldn’t underestimate the training side of it," Jenkins has explained. "There are a lot of other 16-year-olds who will have excellent careers but they wouldn’t be able to manage it at this point. There’s a serenity that surrounds Ryan. Nothing overly fazes him. He doesn’t allow outside influences to be a factor."
Sessegnon scores against West Ham's U18s
5. Aaron Morley (Rochdale, 16)
Keith Hill's never been afraid to blood young players in his teams, and central midfielder Morley is the latest beneficiary of such a mindset. The 16-year-old made his senior debut in the Checkatrade Trophy win over Notts Country earlier this month, with his performance so promising that Hill handed him his first appearance in the league four days later.
"His passing is as good as you’re going to get at any level – not just this level," Hill gushed. "It’s like slo-mo when he gets the ball. Trust me, the processes he goes through are very, very quick. They’re in timing with the Premier League. If he adds to that, then there could be a talent there for the football club."
— Rochdale AFC (@officiallydale) October 4, 2016
6. Duane Holmes (Scunthorpe, 21)
Nothing particularly special was expected of Holmes when Graham Alexander decided to throw him a lifeline in the summer. Released by Huddersfield after making just four starts in three years, the winger was initially expected to be a squad player at Glanford Park, but Holmes has since forced his way into first-team reckoning with some eye-catching cameos.
Lightning-quick and aggressive both with and without the ball, the American permanently plays on the front foot and is always looking for a way to break through the opposition backline. His fellow wideman Josh Morris has benefited from his presence, too, scoring 12 goals in 14 league appearances so far.
7. Otis Khan (Yeovil, 21)
An appearance on the ITV game show Ninja Warrior UK is enough to tell you that Otis Khan isn’t the sort of kid to sit around on the sidelines waiting for something to happen. The 21-year-old Mancunian was a Sheffield United player when the episode was recorded and a Barnsley player when it was aired, having lost patience after three years of waiting for a chance at Bramall Lane.
The Tykes couldn’t satisfy his appetite for first-team action either, granting Khan just three substitute appearances on their march to promotion from League One. So when the call came from Darren Way with the promise of regular first-time minutes at Yeovil, Khan immediately dropped the phone and dashed off to start a new life in the West Country.
A stocky right-sided midfielder in the Xherdan Shaqiri mould, his ability to break quickly into opposition territory has added an extra dimension to the Glovers' attack.
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