At first glance, there appear to be very few grounds for optimism at Fulham. Slavisa Jokanovic’s arrival hasn’t sparked a misfiring side into life and a run of one win in fifteen games suggests that the first few months of 2016 will be spent waging an almighty battle against the drop. Factor that that the team’s mostly likely source of goals is apparently desperate to leave Craven Cottage, whilst the promising French striker the club have spent four years nurturing is poised to sign a pre-contract agreement with Monaco and most Fulham fans would be seeking salvation at the bottom of a pint glass. There is, however, a bright spot even on this particularly bleak horizon.
It comes in the shape of a youth team that is beginning to make a few people around football talk. Exhibit A is the Under 18s victory this afternoon at Arsenal. A friend of mine, recently retired from coaching young players for the Gunners, watched the Whites beat Arsenal 3-1 at their London Colney training ground this afternoon and was effusive in his praise. The comprehensive victory was Fulham’s seventh successive league win and hints at the kind of bright future that many supporters might have envisaged following the run to the FA Youth Cup final in 2014.
We are, of course, already seeing the fruits of Fulham’s serious investment in their youth set-up. Marcus Bettinelli will challenge Andy Lonergan for the first team goalkeeper’s jersey when he completes a spirited comeback from that horrible injury he suffered in September at Hull, whilst Moussa Dembele and Emerson Hyndman have already featured in the first team, despite the fact that it looks likely they will be plying their trades elsewhere in the summer. Saturday saw the welcome return of George Williams, who showed glimpses of real promise in his cameo roles for Fulham and Wales last year, whilst nobody needs reminding of the potential of Lasse Vigen Christensen.
The plaudits for Fulham’s 2014 under-18 side were plentiful – with the departed Patrick Roberts (whose move to Manchester City has been questioned in developmental terms of late) to the fore, of course – but the whispers around Motspur Park are that the current crop of youngsters are just as exciting. Much of the credit for that has to go the trio who have been responsible for the transformation of Fulham’s academy in recent years: Malcolm Elias, Huw Jennings and Steve Wigley. Alistair Mackintosh might be getting plenty of the Financial Fair Play flak floating around at the moment, but it should be remembered that it was the chief executive who took personal charge of the restructuring of the club’s youth set-up shortly after his arrival.
Elias and Jennings are old hands in the development world, having nurtured talent down at Southampton, but Wigley’s return to Motspur Park after an ill-fated spell as Stuart Pearce’s second-in-command at Nottingham Forest was a real coup for the club. The three men have clearly defined roles but work alongside each other to ensure that the production line revs along nicely, which is so pivotal when the opportunity to merely buy the country’s brightest talent courtesy of a billionaire benefactor has largely been removed by those FFP regulations. Jennings has spoken at length previously – to me and others – about the importance of getting the pathway towards senior football right and that is what Fulham’s development structure is aimed towards, giving prodigious talent the right balance between age-appropriate development and a chance in the lower leagues.
Wigley has both a keen eye for talent and a tactical brain honed over years of winning football matches. It is no coincidence that the Under 18’s fine run has come after he returned to Fulham as Kevin Keen’s permanent replacement and challenged the club’s youngsters to deliver on their potential. The goals flowed almost immediately – with a Josh Walker hat-trick seeing off Leicester and three from Dennis Adeniran helping the Whites power past Tottenham. The predatory instincts of Mancunian forward Stephen Humphrys, long talked off as one of the brightest young prospects in the north-west, have also come to the fore, whilst Foday Nabay, brought in from Birmingham City amid a fair bit of fanfare has really flourished in midfield. The performances of England youth international brothers Ryan and Stephen Sessegnon helped the national under-16 side win the Nike International Tournament before Christmas – and Ryan laid on a goal against the Gunners today.
When you consider that the likes of Luca de la Torre have been fast-tracked into the under-21 set up at the age of 17 and Jack Grimmer’s development continues on loan at Shrewsbury once again, there are real signs that these young boys could be knocking on the first team door in the seasons to come. The way in which Arron Davies and Marlon Fossey have trained on in the past few months shows that the desire at Motspur Park is contagious and the Elias-Jennings-Wigley axis combined with Jokanovic’s own impressive track record of helping young talent flourish could bode very well for the years to come.
If you get the chance to watch Fulham’s youth team between now and the end of the season, I’d thoroughly recommend you take it. It won’t be a decision you regret. You might just see one of the stars of the future.