STAR midfielder Brad Walker has praised boss Colin Cooper for giving younger players the chance to shine at Hartlepool United.
The 17-year-old has become a firm fixture in the Pools starting XI after being promoted from the youth team last summer and has thanked Cooper for encouraging him to play with “freedom”.
Walker, who scored a stunning strike in the 4-0 win over Bristol Rovers at the weekend, capped his fine weekend by picking up the League Two Apprentice of the Year gong at the Football League Awards.
And the Billingham-born teenager follows in the footsteps of 19-year-old teammate Luke James who picked up the League One award last season.
Walker says the awards reflect well on the youth policy at Victoria Park, which has also seen Darren Holden and Jordan Richards, both 20, become first team regulars.
“The gaffer has been very honest with the younger players,” Walker told SportMail.
“He has said ‘I know what you can do, there is your chance – just grasp it’.
“And the younger players have done just that.
“We go out to play free of pressure.
“The manager tells us to play with freedom and he realises that everyone will make mistakes so it is good to have that faith from your manager.
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“The youth system at Pools is a credit to the club.
“The likes of me, Luke, Darren and Jordan have come through and are all doing really well and that reflects well on the club.”
Walker, with 33 appearances and three stunning goals to his name this season, beat off competition from Plymouth Argyle’s Ben Purrington and Portsmouth’s Jack Whatmough to claim the LFE Apprentice of the Year for League 2 Award on Sunday night.
He joined Pools at the age of 13 and often cycled to and from training – a 12-mile round trip - which showed his desire to become a professional footballer.
That commitment stood him in good stead and after finishing last season as top scorer for the youth team, he was asked to travel with the first team to Holland in pre-season.
After impressing he then signed his first professional contract on the eve of the Sky Bet League Two campaign, and has become one of the first names on the teamsheet.
“I started the season with the youth team and I wasn’t angry but I wanted to kick-on,” said Walker.
“I said to myself if I get the chance I’m going to take it and then went away to Holland with the first team and got to know the manager and Craig Hignett [former assistant manager] and really enjoyed it.
“That was a real positive and I have just kicked on from there.”