The announcement this week of contract extensions for both George Williams and Cameron Burgess, the latter of whom immediately went on loan to Scottish side Ross County, comes as most welcome news for Fulham fans.
This season can so far be best described as a voyage of discovery. We are in a new league, with new players and a new manager against new opposition in new stadiums set amid a background of new, ever changing expectations. There have been some new lows and a few new highs (who knew a 3-3 draw at Rotherham could mean so much!). Are we getting promoted this season? No we’re not. Are Kit’s substitutions and tactics sometimes frustrating? Yes they are. Do we need to panic buy this month? Absolutely not.
Of course, should the right player who could help bring this club forward for the future become available, then of course we should move to bring them in. However, for the first transfer window in recent memory, it is not the potential incomings that are bothering me.
Fulham’s best hope of sustainably rebuilding and re-establishing ourselves a division up is to keep and develop our talented young players. In truth, expectations on most of these youngsters are so high, that even if half of them come close to reaching their full potential, we would have a side more than capable of reaching, and staying in the Premier League.
Our goal for now is staying in the Championship with enough time to spare so that the young players can get progressively more game time as the season comes to a close. At the moment, too many of the youngsters’ development is being restricted to 5 minutes off the substitutes bench because the senior players aren’t getting the job done and games can’t be risked.
The most fun time to watch Fulham is if we are winning and somehow we end up with Christensen, Woodrow, Roberts and Williams all on the pitch together. But we have a risk averse manager and are not, unfortunately, often in a position for such frivolity.
The problem though, and this is the perennial conundrum with player development, is that many of the young players simply aren’t ready to play 90 minutes week in week out. Yet in order to develop to a point where they are ready, they must play games. It is a catch 22 scenario. You see why Kit Symons, a manager who himself is learning his craft, is almost on a hiding to nothing?
Let’s look at the players individually; of the homegrown young players, the only ones who have really stepped up this season are Lasse Vigen Christensen, Marcus Bettinelli and Jack Grimmer. It is of no coincidence that these are the ones for whom game time has been the most consistent. None were in the side at the start of the season but all will be mainstays for years to come as long as they don’t leave. Christensen is the particular standout and the Danish Energizer Bunny’s form has seen him linked with Aston Villa in the tabloids. In years to come he shall surely play at a higher level but for now, the best place for him is being the first name on the Fulham team sheet.
Grimmer is a particularly interesting case study. In and around the squad under Martin Jol because of a dearth of right backs, he was sent out on loan last season to Port Vale where he excelled. This season he was sent out again, to League Two table toppers Shrewsbury Town, where he once more excelled. He was recalled to Fulham after goal machine Tim Hoogland suffered a hernia. After struggling to adapt in his first few games, Grimmer has noticeably stepped up in recent weeks. Each passing game is evidently having a positive effect on both his confidence and his abilities. The particularly adept way he marshalled Bakary Sako of Wolves in the FA Cup a fortnight ago was telling considering Sako had run riot on us back in August. If he continues at this rate, Jack will be in the Scotland squad before the year is out.
Why then, have these three particularly stepped up? It is not a matter of loan experience, for Christensen has none at all and he is our best player, Ross McCormack aside. Age, and more specifically, maturity, might hold the key. For George Williams, Patrick Roberts, Emerson Hyndman and Moussa Dembele, all of whom have shown glimpses of what their future holds, this season may have simply come a year too soon.
Williams and Roberts are both exceptional and exciting attacking talents. Williams has several full Wales caps to his name and Roberts is the golden child. Yet neither is quite ready to take the league by storm. When you consider they were playing in the FA Youth Cup less than a year ago, is that really surprising? When given starts, both players have bright spells but appear to go missing for long spells. As explosive attackers, their strengths are about taking defenders on. You simply cannot do that for 90 minutes.
Roberts in particular still has a lot to learn about the nuances of 90 minutes at senior level. Yet at the moment, his development is not going as fast as we’d like because he only really gets on for a few minutes at a time, if he’s lucky. Hyndman benefits from being a part of the US Youth National Team set up with additional games and training camps. Others, like Roberts, Williams and Dembele appear to need a more structured development plan. Not 90 minutes every week, but consistent and increasing game time off the bench.
For the young attackers, the maturity and composure required to develop into regular starters will only come with regular game time. However, this cannot be at the expense of the team whilst they are still developing. It is all very well and good learning when to shoot, but we must stay up, so some of those shots need to go in, hence the catch-22.
Dembele, for example, appears to have an issue with his composure. If he acts on instinct, and instinct alone, he is as lethal as he was at junior level [see the Derby cup defeat where he scored 2]. Yet if he has time to think, he has not yet played enough games and scored enough goals at this level to know the correct decision to make. He will only get this experience by playing games, something he is not, and will not do as our 4th choice centre forward.
We could send him on loan, but as Huw Jennings has said, not every player has the personality for a loan spell some are better suited to staying under the watchful eyes of their existing coaches. We also won’t send anyone on loan unless there is a realistic chance they will play regularly. With Fulham traditionally wanting (if not always successfully) to play a certain way, and with the young players bread in our youth sides to play passing football, would a loan in the rough ‘em tough ‘em lower leagues really do them any good? It is why defenders and goalkeepers often get loaned, but we have been hesitant to send out our creative players.
There are other players whose development is coming along nicely. Cauley Woodrow for example is progressing into a very good player. As the 3rd choice striker he has had semi regular game time this season to go with his loan at Southend last year. He has all the technical attributes to succeed, and given experience and some physical enhancements that come with age, strength and speed etc, he is well on course.
Others like Sean Kavanagh have been a pleasant surprise, and will only benefit from continued interaction with the first team. While others, such as Dan Burn, seem to have stagnated. In Burn’s case, his decline has allowed for Shaun Hutchinson to emerge out of the shadow of his early struggles. At centre back though, we still have Cameron Burgess and Liam Donnelly in the ranks, even if they’ve been lost in the system for the last few months.
There is no formula for successfully developing young players. Between Symons and academy director Huw Jennings, we have the staff in place to practice the alchemy required to strike the right balance with our youngsters, but it remains a crucial and fragile process. The loss of Steve Wigley to Nottingham Forest has clearly hindered the Academy, as has the loss of the majority of their players to the first team where we are seeing several years graduates all at once.
While most successful teams might carry one, two or even three young players in their regular squad, Fulham have gone Full Boyle and flooded the team with them. Coupled with the fact we have the likes of Alex Kacaniklic, Ryan Tunnicliffe, Shaun Hutchinson and Kostas Stafylidis, all of whom are still relatively inexperienced, no wonder there has been a heavy burden on the senior players.
So this January, instead of bringing in yet more new faces, I would like to see Fulham concentrate on doing whatever can be done to further progress the players we do have. Securing them on new contracts, like with Williams and Burgess, is the place to start. It both engenders confidence in the player and provides us with a level of security should the vultures begin to circle.
Our best hope long term is to keep this young squad together and to make sure they progress and develop. If we do, it will be a better investment than any signing could be.
Oh and can Chris David be allowed back in?