The League Cup has never really featured prominently in the thoughts of the modern football fan. It is definitely the poor relation of the FA Cup, which itself has been criminally diminished in stature over the past couple of decades, and bread and butter of the league tops your priorities. Fulham fans hardly have happy memories of the competition, either. It is ten years today since our ignominious exit at the hands of Wycombe Wanderers and I can’t be the only Fulham follower to still occasionally awake in a cold sweat remembering how we conspired to throw away a 2-0 quarter-final lead at Leicester under Paul Bracewell in a quarter-final before failing to convert any penalties in a shambolic shoot-out.
This season, however, the renamed EFL Cup has delivered something refreshing. Not in terms of the competition itself, but Fulham’s approach to it. For years, we’ve put patched up teams out, seemingly seeking to merely fulfill the fixture, and the games have largely been non-events. It was clear that the trophy wouldn’t feature highly on Slavisa Jokanovic’s priority list, but the Serbian took squad rotation to a distinctly new level at Leyton Orient just a few days over our season opened so successfully against Newcastle. He threw in some of the latest crop of youngsters to emerge from the Motspur Park academy – and they prospered.
It was at Brisbane Road that we saw Ryan Sessegnon’s pre-season was no flash in the pan – and the teenage full-back has not looked back. His joyous tweet this afternoon about the prospect of playing at Craven Cottage against Bristol City tomorrow evening was refreshing and you can sense the younger lads enjoying the prospect of playing together in a senior side. Sessegnon wasn’t even Fulham’s star man at Orient – that accolade went to accomplished Dennis Adeniran, whose physicality and poise in possession, established a tempo early on. That the young midfielder didn’t look out of place against Premier League Middlesbrough in the following round shows just how burgeoning a talent he is.
Fulham might have lost a number of promising youth players to other clubs in recent years, but the number of academy graduates who have started impressively shows that the hard work at Motspur Park is paying off. Huw Jennings has been one of the most engaging Fulham figures I’ve had the good fortune to talk football with in the past couple of years, so I was jealous of GetWestLondon’s Tom Moore, who had the opportunity to grill the academy guru at length recently. I would highly recommend both pieces – the second of which was published today and featured some interesting snippets about some of the youngsters we’ll see in action tomorrow.
That Jokanovic is prepared to blood the youngsters in competitive games says much about his convictions as a coach. There was some cynical suggestions that his policy of offering game time to some of the U18 and U23 squad at Orient was designed to demonstrate how bare the cupboard was in terms of senior talent – but Jokanovic has always introduced young talent wherever he has been as a coach and he’s clearly far more comfortable at giving youth its head than Kit Symons became, which seems perverse given his predecessor’s long service within the club’s youth set-up.
The joy with which the likes of Tayo Edun and Adebayo embraced each other at the end of the extra-time downing of Middlesbrough showed just how much these games matter to the youngsters. The confidence they have gained from a fine set of early-season displays is immeasurable and a few of the stellar performers might even be close to forcing their way into the senior matchday squad. Tomorrow night’s tussle with Bristol City will be intriguing tussle and that’s before you factor in how the likes of Ryan Tunnicliffe, Lasse Vigen Christensen and new signing Lucas Piazon could be fitted in alongside some of our academy graduates.
It might not dominate many column inches – or even prompt a large attendance – but this early exposure to senior football will be far more beneficial to the youngsters’ development than a youth fixture, half-paced U23 game or participation in the laughable EFL Trophy. What’s more, winning becomes a habit – and it’s one that our youngsters could help reestablish in the Fulham dressing room after three disappointing results. Whatever the outcome against an eye-catching City side tomorrow night, there’s plenty to admire about how Jokanovic has taken to a competition that might have been viewed as a distraction in the early weeks of August.