Newport County midfielder Finn Azaz has been named EFL Young Player of the Month after an impressive string of performances for the Sky Bet League Two promotion candidates.
The Aston Villa loanee has been influential in the Welsh side’s rise into the Play-Off places, amassing three assists in January, helping Newport take 13 points from a possible 18.
“I was quite surprised when I got the text to say I’ve won the award, and it’s really nice to get that recognition,” he admits. “I feel like I’ve been playing well and the team has been doing well, so it’s nice for Newport and Villa as well.
“I’m not going to dwell on it too much because I’ve got to focus on the next games and continuing to perform at a high level for Newport, but it definitely feels good to win the award.”
Azaz is enjoying his second loan spell in successive years in the fourth tier, having contributed to Cheltenham Town’s title-winning campaign last season, making 37 league appearances.
His experience of promotion success is proving invaluable for the Exiles, who registered four straight victories in January to charge up the table, with the 21-year-old making a significant impact on the pitch.
“Having played in League Two for a season-and-a-half now, I know how hard it is to get four wins on the bounce,” he continues. “It’s really difficult, especially playing away from home.
“I was involved in three of the wins, but I didn’t play in the game at Leyton Orient and they came away with a really big result away from home, so that’s testament to the team.
“When you’re playing in a team that’s playing well and winning games, it becomes easier to thrive individually, and that’s what’s happened for me. I rely a lot on my team-mates’ service to get the ball into me in the areas that I want, so the other lads have played a major role in me winning this award.
“Having been in a promotion team, I know how good the squad is here. We’ve got a good mix of senior and younger players. Since the new Manager came in, we’ve looked at the points and if he’d have been in from the start of the season and we’d had the same form, we’d be comfortably in the top three, but obviously football doesn’t work like that.”
The promising youngster has caught the eye with some dazzling displays of late, but it was initially a difficult transition for Azaz to settle and establish himself in the starting line-up.
Having mostly been restricted to cameos off the bench under previous Manager Michael Flynn, the appointment of new boss James Rowberry in October sparked an upturn in fortunes for the ex-West Brom Academy player, who has been a regular ever since, recording an outstanding average WhoScored rating of 7.22 in that time.
He says: “I had a few little niggles at the start of the season and then I got COVID. The old Manager was playing a certain style with one number 10 and Ollie Cooper was playing really well.
“When the new Manager came in, he tweaked the system for his first game against Bristol Rovers. We played really well that day, with me fitting into that system, and that was the catalyst really. He trusted me and we built momentum from there.
“It's been very good to play under different Managers, experience different styles and play alongside different players. It’s been really good for my development. I’m someone who likes to have the ball a lot, but I had to work on my out-of-possession game a lot last season.
“This season, I haven’t had to think about what I’m doing out of possession because that’s drilled into me now, and I can really focus on getting on the ball and affecting the game in that way.”
Off the pitch, Azaz currently lives in a house with a number of his team-mates, including prolific striker Dom Telford and the vastly experienced 42-year-old Kevin Ellison, who has acted as a mentor to the Westminster-born talent.
“Myself and Kev have a really good relationship,” Azaz explains. “Especially when I first came into the house, I was asking him a lot of questions and trying to take little bits of information about how he’s managed to maintain himself physically throughout his career.
“He’s a top pro who does all the right things before and after sessions. He does yoga and he’s got me doing a lot more swimming, because he does that a lot. It’s very interesting looking into the specifics of how he's kept his body in such good shape over the years, especially being an attacker.
“Coming into this league, you realise very quickly how difficult it is to get to the Premier League level. The key is to try and be consistent with your performances. I’ve tried really hard this season to work on that and be at my best for 90 minutes week after week and a big part of that is how you look after yourself in between matches.”
Two defeats at the start of February against fellow high-flyers Forest Green Rovers and Northampton Town were not the ideal start to a pivotal run of fixtures for Newport, with Mansfield Town, Tranmere Rovers and the reverse fixture with table-toppers Forest Green on the horizon in the coming weeks.
“We’ve got a few tough games coming up,” says Azaz. “These games can go either way and sometimes you might need a bit of luck. As long as we prepare and trust the process, then the results should hopefully look after themselves.
“We just need to take each game as it comes and not even think of the ‘p’ word because it does have an effect on people. We’ve got five home games in a row now and we’ll go into them confident and prepared.”
Azaz’s ultimate aim is to return to Villa with a chance to emulate some of their other Academy prospects, who have featured in various competitions under Steven Gerrard. He believes a strong end to the season with Newport will go a long way towards achieving that objective.
“I’m confident in my ability to get to the Premier League,” he adds. “I have that inner confidence that I think you need. I’m playing regularly and developing my game, which should prepare me for opportunities higher up the leagues.
“I played against Jacob Ramsey growing up the age groups and it’s crazy to see how much he’s developed and how good he looks in the Premier League. I look at that and the opportunities that are being given to the younger players and it gives me hope that I can be given that chance, too.
“My immediate focus is on finishing this season strong, but I am hopeful for the future beyond that.”