Craig Hignett discusses the impact of Aaron Cunningham after the defender is thrown in at the deep end at Hartlepool United
Even by National League standards, the size of Hartlepool United's first-team squad is small.
With every senior player fully fit Pools have just 20 professionals with first-team experience at their disposal, that includes youngsters Kenton Richardson, Aaron Cunningham, Danny Amos and Josh Hawkes.
As assistant manager Ged McNamee said, playing kids at Pools is "a necessity" when options are limited - and it can often be sink or swim time for kids in the notoriously physical, demanding fifth tier.
One player who has been thrown in at the deep end by manager Craig Hignett is youngster Aaron Cunningham.
The central defender, now 21, has not had the easiest of starts to life in the pro game, with an ankle injury resulting in reconstructive surgery.
A stunted loan spell at Blyth Spartans, where knocks were a constant annoyance but performances highly though of, came to an end and looked like it could be extended but circumstance brought him back to Pools, and injuries handed him his chance. It's fair to say he's grasped it with both hands.
Boss Hignett has been impressed by the player, whose Pools deal is up at the end of the season.
A calf strain picked up in the 2-2 draw at Sutton United could keep him out of action this weekend v Dover Athletic, but it could be just the break the player needs having started Pools' last four National League games.
"Aaron has done remarkably well but it is a tough ask for him to sustain," said Hignett, wary of the player's injury record.
"We haven't been able to rest him and we have three or four who could do with a rest.
"It's a big physical league, with a lot of travelling and it's a tough ask to ask a young lad to cope with Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday when they've just come in.
"The defence has looked good without some experienced players. Aaron has come in and you would think he’s played hundreds of games, but as a unit – and I count the wide men in that – they have all showed form at the right time.
"Come in and take their chance, that's all I can ask of young players and Aaron has certainly done that."