TEENAGE Wanderers midfielder Josh Vela has set his sights on a regular first-team berth under Dougie Freedman after making his first Reebok start on Saturday.
The young Salfordian has been hailed as the brightest prospect to come out of Wanderers’ academy in years – and now he is ready to live up to his top billing.
Fresh from his Reebok bow in the 2-1 FA Cup defeat against Everton, he insists he is now ready to take the next step and cement a place in Freedman’s Championship line-up.
Vela has already overcome two serious injuries in his brief professional career but the midfielder, who was the subject of a £1million bid from Liverpool before he had kicked a ball in Wanderers’ senior ranks, has now set his sights on Vicarage Road, and on making this weekend’s starting 11 at Watford.
“A lot of people have said I’m good – but I’ve got to live up to that expectation haven’t I?” said Vela, who made his Whites debut against Swansea last April.
“I’ve got to perform on the pitch. I’ve progressed right the way through the club but now I have got to get a first-team slot.
“The gaffer has been great with me, encouraged me, and hopefully now I can get in his thoughts for the weekend and get in that starting team.”
Vela is still just 19 but was plunged into the action on Saturday against the Premier League Toffees when Keith Andrews pulled out with a thigh injury.
It was an experience that whet the teenager’s appetite.
“It was so disappointing to lose that game. We didn’t deserve it,” he said. “But I felt good out there with Jay Spearing; nice and composed, we passed the ball about and I thought we did really well. He’s always talking in games and telling me what to do – a bit like Zat Knight at the back. They both give me loads of encouragement and make sure I keep my head in the game.”
Vela’s confident style will come as no surprise to those who have seen him at Leyland in the last few years, but, after showing up so well in the biggest game of his senior career to date, the youngster admits he is having to make adjustments.
“Coming up from the reserves, it’s such a big step,” he said. “The pace is much quicker but you get on with it – take two touches, get the ball moving around. That’s what I try to do.
“You can get away with playing at half-pace in the under-21s because the games don’t move as quickly but when you are out there playing in the Championship they would find you out.”
Vela, who has been nurtured in the club’s youth ranks since the age of nine, signed pro terms under Owen Coyle in March, 2011, making his senior debut a month later.
A broken ankle kept him out for several weeks but he remained in the first-team picture and started his first Wanderers game in the League Cup at Crawley at the start of this season.
Once again, injury struck and after damaging knee ligaments just five minutes into the game, he was sidelined for four months.
Thankfully, help was at hand. And his return to fitness has coincided with that of midfield talisman Stuart Holden.
“Stuart has been a massive help,” he said. “He’s been out for two years but he’s still such a big player for the club.
“It’s been a privilege to work with him because he’s helped me through it all.
“When I first got injured he gave me a phone call and said ‘get back in the gym and I’ll be there with you’. It was great to hear at the time.
“We’ve done loads of running through hailstorms and gale-force winds at Euxton.
“He’s been a real inspiration for me.”