Former Fulham Academy striker Marcello Trotta this week signed for Italian Serie A side Sassuolo. Whilst being pleased for Marcello and in some ways feeling vindicated having always been in the pro-Trotta camp, it’s hard not to look on with a touch of remorse at what might have been had he stayed at Fulham.
So it got me thinking, who else has left the academy under the cover of darkness only to go on and have their name in lights elsewhere? Who are the ones that got away?
The long and short of it is that there aren’t very many. As an fascinating long read article from the Guardian’s Barney Ronay illustrated this week, the life of a Premier League Academy graduate is often one of hardship, with a very small percentage actually making it to top level football. For every success story, there are countless more failures.
In truth, Fulham’s academy only began to resemble a genuine source of senior players following Huw Jennings arrival at Fulham in December 2008. Success was only beginning to be noticeable in 2011 when our Under 18s made the Barclays Premier Academy League Final for the first time. Many of the most promising Academy players developed under Jennings’ tenure are only now finding their opportunities in the senior game, be it at Fulham or elsewhere.
In the years before Jennings arrived at Motspur Park, Fulham’s academy was not the glittering Category 1 talent factory it is today (ok ever so slight over exaggeration), it was more of a hotchpotch of local ‘talent’ and random cherry picked foreigners as Fulham sought to keep up with the ever younger and ever geographically expanding Premier League talent arms race.
In looking into the ones that got away, I’m not talking about those that broke into the first team and quickly got sold for a profit. The tales of Chris Smalling, Patrick Roberts and Kerim Frei are well known. Who though are the gems that got away?
Now 23, Marcello Trotta was signed by Serie A side US Sassuolo this week for a reported fee of £2m from Avellino. The striker had been at Avellino, in Italy’s second tier, for a year having left Fulham quietly last January. Trotta had 8 goals and 5 assists in Serie B this season prompting Sassuolo to snap up the Italy Under 21 international with bigger clubs reported to be looking on as well. Trotta’s time at Fulham was defined by a lack of opportunities. Despite scoring 56 goals in the 4 and a half seasons he was in England across various competitions, a succession of Fulham managers refused to give him a chance. He performed well during three loan spells in the football league (at Wycombe and twice at Brentford) but never got his chance at Craven Cottage. He was a natural predator in front of goal and his continued rise through the ranks in his homeland will be closely watched by Fulham fans with perhaps the biggest sense of “what if” out of all the players on this list.
The diminutive left midfielder arrived at Fulham from Inter Milan in 2007 as one of the first wave of foreign prospects brought to the club. After signing a one year deal with Fulham in 2008 he left under the radar a year later. Following a move to Sicilian side Palermo and several loan spells, he earned a move to then Serie B side Sassuolo. He has subsequently built a solid foundation to his career at Sassuolo, having earnt promotion to Serie A with them. Now 24, he spent last season on loan at Bologna in Serie A before returning to Sassuolo this season where he’s been in and out of the side. Laribi arrived at Fulham at the same time as another Italian, Luca Moscatiello, who now plies his trade in the 4th tier of Swiss football.
Swedish forward Tankovic was the first high profile Fulham prospects to leave the club once we got relegated. He had several fleeting chances in the Fulham first team in our relegation season, most notably as a lone striker away at Manchester United, but he did not renew his contract and joined Dutch Eredivisie side AZ Alkmaar following our relegation. Tankovic enjoyed a large amount of game time in his first season in Holland but has found himself in and out the AZ side in his second season and has made only 10 league appearances this term. Tankovic’s lightweight frame and finesse style would not have suited the Championship but he remains a player remorseful eyes will track from SW6 as his career develops.
Forward Hoesen left Fulham in one of the more bizarre transfers in recent memory, signing for Dutch giants and well known talent factory Ajax straight from the Fulham reserves. What did they see that we didn’t? Having played in the Champions League for Ajax, Hoesen’s meteoric rise somewhat stalled when he was deemed surplus to requirements and loaned to Greek side PAOK. He now appears to have found his level, featuring 14 times this season for Dutch Eredivisie side FC Groningen.
Goalkeeper Etheridge’s time at Fulham will be remembered for two things; conceding the 2 goals that knocked us out the Europa League at home to OB Odense in his only first team appearance, and having the most twitter followers at the club owing to his superstardom in the Philippines, where he’s goalkeeper for the national team. Goalkeeper progression is a hard conundrum for many clubs and Etheridge fell on the wrong side of history at Fulham. After several loan spells he was released 18 months ago once he became too old to feature regularly for the Academy and U21 sides. Having spent last season at Oldham and Charlton, Etheridge was picked up by Walsall on a free transfer. In a move that now resembles a masterstroke, Etheridge is the first choice keeper for the Saddlers having kept 8 clean sheets this season in League One. He’s also only conceded 20 goals in 22 games. With goalkeepers typically improving with age, Etheridge, at age 25 would appear to have a very bright future ahead of him. Another goalkeeper from the Fulham academy making a name for himself is Wes Foderingham, now first choice at Scottish giants Rangers.
The story of Australian centre back Leijer is not so much that of “the one who got away” but rather “the one who got away and made a nice career for himself but it was still probably best for both parties that he left”. Having signed as a 21-year-old next big thing from Melbourne Victory, Leijer returned to Australia two years later having failed to make the grade in England. He went on to play more than 100 times in the Australian A-League and captained the Victory to A-League glory. He now plies his trade in China’s top division for Chongqing Lifan.
The final name on my list is not an academy player, nor someone who was ever a permanent Fulham player. Stefano Okaka Chuka spent the second half of Fulham’s Europa League Final season on loan at Craven Cottage from AS Roma. Having become known to Fulham fans after he scored for Roma against Fulham earlier in the season, Okaka played a sparing role as Fulham stumbled along to the end of the league season whilst eyes and minds were focussed on Thursday nights. He had raw skills but lacked the composure to make a real difference in front of goal. 5 years later and Okaka has matured into a very talented forward. Having left Roma, Okaka had spells at Parma, La Spezia and Sampdoria before a £2m move to RSC Anderlecht sought to revive his career in the summer. He’s gone on to make quite the impression in Belgium having scored 9 goals in 21 appearances so far this season, including the winner against Tottenham in the Europa League.
Juries Still Out
Three more on whom the jury is still out are Chris David, Jonathan Buatu and Omri Altman, who now play for Go Ahead Eagles (Dutch 1sttier), Waasland-Beveren (Belgian 1st tier) and Hapoel Tel Aviv (Israeli 1st tier) respectively. 22 year old Angola international centre back Buatu in particular is one player whom I expect will make the transition back to a top league at some point before too long. Chris David, he of the much potential and Premier League wonder goal, is a perfect example of what can go wrong. Many people, myself included, expected him to be one of the stars of our Championship campaign last season. However, after falling out with management he was loaned to former club FC Twente (for whom he ended up playing in the reserves) before being released last summer.
Part Two tomorrow will look at those players who maybe didn’t quite end up where they wanted.