Martin Jol’s assertion – made public by a tabloid newspaper – that he might just start again with some of Fulham’s youngsters next season made a few people’s hearts flutter the other week. Club insiders have expressed frustration that their manager’s comments are regularly twisted or engineered to become a bigger story than they would otherwise have been to fit a journalist’s narrative and I’d be highly sceptical that Jol’s intention over the summer is to flog off the likes of Hangeland, Dempsey and Dembele as this report suggests.
There is, however, no denying that Jol has been given clear instructions to rebalance the squad in favour of younger players. It’s no coincidence that we’ve seen a lot of more of Matthew Briggs, Kerim Frei, Marcello Trotta and Alex Kacanaklic this term than in previous seasons. David Stockdale’s long-term contract – prior to being sent out on loan to Ipswich back in the autumn – also demonstrated that Jol sees him as the future number one, although it remains to be seen just when he will leapfrog the evergreen Mark Schwarzer in the pecking order.
Kacanaklic’s tantalising cameo against Norwich on Saturday saw the Swedish winger show promise that belied his tender age. That Jol trusted him enough to field him instead of an out-and-out striker when Pavel Pogrebnyak limped off told you plenty about his talent, but few – even those like me who have admired him from afar for a while following his fine performances in the reserves – though Kacanaklic would deliver a performance as impressive as the one that followed. It got me thinking as to what might emerge if several of the young stars blossomed into first-teamers.
If Kacanaklic’s development is mirrored by Kerim Frei, who has already showed plenty of signs of promise, then Jol might have solved Fulham’s frustrating lack of natural width at a stroke. The Swiss youth international has been far more willing to go outside the full-back in his games for the reserves in recent times and has both the ability and the confidence to run at a defender in a manner more befitting an old-fashioned winger. The pace of Frei and Kacanaklic could see them deployed as either conventional or inverted wingers and offer Jol the opportunity to play the sort of pacey, attacking football that he promised when he first replaced Mark Hughes.
Jol’s more adventurous approach has paid dividends since the turn of the year and there are plenty more talents waiting to be unleashed down at Motspur Park. We’ve seen very little of Pajtim Kasami since Boxing Day – the highly-rated Swiss teenager has largely been holding down the ‘number ten’ roll for the reserves – and awaiting another first team outing. Whether he’s fallen out of favour as a result of the penalty furore following his previous visit to Stamford Bridge is a question we’ll probably never know the answer to, but if he had then surely he’d have been more amenable to that January approach from Juventus? There have been even fewer sightings of Marcel Gecov, who looked like a credible contender to replace Danny Murphy in the few first-team outings he had been afforded.
The defence has been Fulham’s strongest suit since Roy Hodgson plugged the leaks that endangered our Premier League status at the start of his reign. The time will come when replacements will have to be drafted in for the likes of Hughes and Hangeland et al, although Fulham appear well stocked here too. The giant Dan Burn has been in imposing form for the reserves, while Jack Grimmer looks to have adapted well to life in a Fulham shirt – albeit at a more relaxed level that the first team. John Arne Riise has enjoyed a more successful second half of his first season at the club, although we’d be hoping to see a bit more of Briggs next term.
Up front, you’d think Pogrebnyak would remain first choice if he extends his short-term deal past the summer. Even should the Russian sign permanently, Jol would be likely to enter the market for another striker given that the most exciting of our young talents, Muamer Tankovic, is still some way from first-team action. Marcello Trotta, who struggled to get much of a kick for Watford in stark contrast to his stunning goalscoring efforts at Wycombe Wanderers, probably needs another year on loan somewhere. Danny Hoesen has been shortlisted for the young player of the year award after his fine season with Fortuna Sittard in the Dutch second division – and you’d expect both of those two to soon be thriving on the service provided by the likes of Kacaniklic and Frei.
Looks exciting, doesn’t it?