Fans feel a special connection with players who have climbed through their club’s youth ranks to reach the senior side. In this era of big money and foreign fancy dans, it might seem somewhat trite but it is the closest we have to a bond between the performers and the supporters. The idea that players are loyal and establish a special bond seems as outdated these days as the concept as a testimonial, but there is an intrinsic pride at seeing boys who have come through the academy make their mark in senior football. I wrote yesterday about how the EFL Cup – whose lost sponsor might denote its decline in status of late – has been given a special resonance for Fulham fans by Slavisa Jokanovic being bold and selecting some of the club’s brightest youth talent and the first of a double header against Bristol City should see plenty of the stars of tomorrow on show again.
Actually, that might be a little unfair. The most compelling thing about the emergence of another promising collection of young talent is that they appear more than ready right now. Where Ryan Sessegnon has set out to prove the old maxim – ‘if you are good enough, you’re old enough,’ several of his contemporaries are seeking to follow in his footsteps. Tayo Edun has already been rewarded with an England youth call up since his determined display against Middlesbrough in the last round and Luca de la Torre’s tasty cameo from the bench against top flight opposition has left plenty of us licking our lips in anticipation of more. Perhaps the most eye-catching performer over the last two ties was Dennis Adeniran, whose composure, physicality and willingness to carry the ball from midfield suggested he had been playing senior football for several seasons rather than just a few weeks.
Jokanovic has already answered the question about how substantially he’ll rotate his side – something which was made easier by the manner in which his youngsters, having looked a little callow in the opening twenty minutes, upped their game to surprise Middlesbrough. There should be a fair sprinkling of experience as well, with the likes of Ryan Tunnicliffe, Lasse Vigen Christensen and perhaps new loanee Lucas Piazon having a place in the first team to play for. Given the fairly ponderous nature of Fulham’s midfield in the past three fixtures, a barnstorming display tonight might just be enough to convince the coaching staff of the need for a change. Perhaps the most intriguing question will be who starts up front – do you stick with Chris Martin, who is still seeking the match sharpness necessary to recapture his previous goalscoring form at Derby, or offer Cauley Woodrow or Matt Smith a go?
Bristol City will be far from a pushover, however. Nobody needs reminding of the way they rallied to deliver what could have been a devastating defeat at Craven Cottage last year. In Lee Johnson, they have one of the most progressive young managers in the game, and his summer recruitment and commitment to a footballing philosophy have helped the Robins to make a promising start to this campaign. Johnson, who visited the Cottage more than a few times as a fan in his youth, won’t make quite as many changes as Jokanovic – but there should be opportunity to view some very promising prospects in the visiting ranks.
Walthamstow-born Taylor Moore, a classy defender in the mould of Eric Dier, opted to continue his footballing education in France having briefly been at the West Ham academy. He has grown into a stalwart of the English youth sides who can now play equally adeptly at full back or in central defence – and there was quite a queue for his signature when he decided to leave Lens this summer. City won the race – and Moore should make his debut for the Robins tonight. Then there’s Callum O’Dowda, a tricky Irish winger who enjoyed a sensational season with Oxford United, and has been patiently waiting for the opportunity to show off his skills and goalscoring ability since leaving his hometown club for more than £1m in the summer.
It remains to be seen whether Johnson will give Tammy Abraham, who has translated his youth goalscoring prowess into the Championship since he joined the Robins from Chelsea on loan, another go up front. Such has been Abraham’s impact that City have barely missed Jonathan Kodjia as the teenager has already notched up eight goals in ten starts. Whatever line-up Johnson puts together, he is certainly justified in his belief that his squad possesses far more strength in depth than last season, and they’ll pose a significant threat to Fulham’s hopes of progressesing this evening.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Bettinelli; Kavanagh, Sessegnon, Madl, Ream; Adeniran, Tunnicliffe; Christensen, Edun, Jozabed; Woodrow. Subs: Joronen, Malone, Johansen, Piazon, de la Torre, Smith, Martin.