John Gregory is backing his young players to blossom despite an uphill battle against relegation from the Barclaycard Premiership.
The Derby manager does not believe the experience will scar defenders Chris Riggott and Danny Higginbotham and strikers Malcolm Christie and Lee Morris.
Derby’s plight looks hopeless after Easter Monday’s home defeat by Middlesbrough left them six points adrift of safety with only five games left.
A rare mistake by Riggott resulted in the game’s only goal but Gregory is confident his rising stars will emerge from a testing season as better players.
Gregory recognises there is no substitute for experience and points to the performances of Warren Barton and Rob Lee against Boro.
‘‘I thought they were our best players,’’ he said. ‘‘They have shown a very high level of consistency and that tells you volumes about the experience they have got.
‘‘They have not allowed our situation to affect their performance but it’s hard for the 21-year-olds who haven’t got that experience.
‘‘They can only get that from going through the highs and lows of a Premiership season.
‘‘They have all suffered a little bit but whatever happens, then Christie, Riggott, Higginbotham and the other youngsters will benefit from the struggles they have endured this year.
‘‘I only hope they don’t have to suffer the sadness of relegation.’’
That hope appears fragile and Derby have to win at Southampton tomorrow to have any chance of fulfilling Gregory’s optimistic forecast.
‘‘I still keep believing it’s possible,’’ insisted Gregory, despite the fact three of Derby’s remaining games are against Newcastle, Liverpool and Leeds.
‘‘I took Aston Villa to Anfield this season and we won 3-1 so anything is possible on the day,’’ said Gregory.
‘‘I know how well we have played at times - we were only seconds away from beating Manchester United and we pushed Arsenal and Chelsea close.
‘‘We are still alive and the players are aware of that. The Middlesbrough result hurt everybody, particularly the players.
‘‘But they have not dwelt on it and I am expecting a tremendous response from them at Southampton.’’