The manner with which Slavisa Jokanovic reacted to another composed display from Ryan Sessegnon was telling. The teenager had just played with a maturity beyond his years, looking totally unfazed at the prospect of playing Championship football at one of England’s most famous grounds, and proved confident enough to carry the attack to Leeds down the left flank. His future prospects – and the move to Tottenham Hotspur, which has been heavily linked in the press since the weekend – came up in the post-match press conference. Jokanovic half-smiled, insisted he didn’t like to talk about Sessegnon for fear of putting pressure on the young lad, and assured the journalists that he certainly had a bright future in the game, but Fulham would be concentrating on his development with care.
There have been too many cases of youngsters getting carried away with the fame of football and thinking they’ve made it before they have even nailed down a place in the first team. You need to look no further than the last teenage left-back to play for Fulham. Matthew Briggs was brought into the senior side on the final day of the season at Middlesbrough as a substitute at 16, lauded as the next big thing, but failed to earn a regular starting place under the next three managers. He introduced his own clothing range, couldn’t crack left back when it became a problem position after the departure of Paul Konchesky and now can’t make the bench for League Two Colchester United. Such are the fine margins of football.
Sessegnon’s whirlwind start may have won plenty of admirers, but nobody at Motspur Park will be getting too carried away. Huw Jennings was quite clear that the club have learned the lessons from the emergence of Kerim Frei and Jokanovic will look to keep nurturing his precocious talent with plenty of care. That will mean regular exposure to under-23 and first team football and trying to persuade the teenager that the best place for his development is at the club where he has been given a chance to shine alongside his twin brother rather than in a Premier League academy. Fulham’s pathway offers excellent opportunities to young scholars and, given the seamless way in which Sessegnon has taken to senior football, he could see plenty of first team action this term.
The raw ingredients for success are all there. Sessegnon’s temperament is first-class – and you don’t need to ask around too much to find out this attitude is top-notch. His decision making is excellent for a young player as well. He doesn’t commit himself too early to a tackle, rarely goes to ground in search of winning the ball, preferring to use his pace to retrieve possession efficiently. Perhaps most encouraging is the manner in which he reads the game – like a seasoned professional. He anticipates the movement of his opposite number well and when caught out, as he was in the opening moments by Stuart Dallas, he recovers quickly and no little panache.
It is no exaggeration to say that, by the end of the first half, Leeds were more worried about his presence on the pitch than getting the ball to Dallas, who has a history of tormenting Fulham full backs going back to his Brentford days, in the final third. There’s no finer compliment to the young man making his first league start at the age of 16 than that. He made the most of Fulham’s natural width as opposed to the narrow 4-4-2 adopted by Garry Monk, gleefully galloping forward to great effect down the left flank, and creating two of Fulham’s clearest scoring opportunities with crosses. His first was headed straight at the goalkeeper by Matt Smith and his second should have produced a goal, but his inviting cross was glanced agonisingly wide from inside the six-yard box by Floyd Ayite. Sessegnon also donated a clever backheel to the flowing move that shot have put the visitors ahead, only for Sone Aluko to strike the post from close range.
Even as Leeds grew alive to his threat, Sessegnon still posed serious problems in the second period. He linked impressively with Ayite and got himself into promising positions, unfortunately snatching at a shot when the chance presented itself. He wasn’t shy to have a strike on goal and did well defensively even as Leeds pushed for a way back into the game once Tom Cairney had given Fulham the lead. The only blot on Sessegnon’s copybook – if you were being ultra-critical – was how he stood off as Chris Wood wound up for his decisive overhead kick in injury time, but he wasn’t the only defender culpable.
This was another unbelievably assured performance – and although comparisons to Gareth Bale are unhelpful, they will continue, so getting used to the attention will be important. Sessegnon’s impressive maturity will help him there and, on the evidence of his first two excellent displays in senior football, he’ll keep going from strength to strength on the pitch as well.