Ryan Sessegnon’s name had long been whispered in hushed tones across Motspur Park conference rooms. The Fulham academy coaches, in common with the plethora of scouts and hangers on who watched youth football, knew just what kind of talent they had at their disposal. Last summer, Huw Jennings made the call; it was time to show Slavisa Jokanovic just what Sessegnon had. The conversation was short – made much easier by the fact that Jokanovic had insisted on having all the coaches housed next to his own office at the Fulham training ground – and Sessegnon’s audition, which took place only after the youngster realised he had left his boots at home having been collected from school, was even briefer.
Anyone who watched him knew Sessegnon’s maturity extended well beyond his mere sixteen years. As a footballer, the young man had it all. Positional sense, pace, strength and the ability that few coaches can teach – the uncanny knack of making the right decision. Jokanovic immediately promoted the wonderkid into his first-team set up and the young full-back seized his opportunity. So good was his pre-season, including an outstanding display during his first taste of Craven Cottage as a senior player in the friendly against Crystal Palace, that only an untimely injury prevented him from making his professional debut in Fulham’s first game against Newcastle United.
Instead, Sessegnon’s senior bow came in the EFL Cup at Leyton Orient. His progression to the first team was taken as read by that point, but his appearance came alongside some of the other shining lights of Fulham’s youth teams, including Tayo Edun, Dennis Adeniran and Luca de la Torre as Jokanovic sent a clear message to the best of the young talent at Motspur Park: ‘If you’re good enough, you’re old enough’. Sessegnon was so impressive at Brisbane Road that it wasn’t a massive surprise that he was called upon again when the Whites travelled to Leeds United, but his composed and influential performance at Elland Road, where he rampaged down the left flank to great effect, made plenty of people sit up and take notice.
The measure of Sessegnon’s progression over the course of his inaugural season in senior football came with the move made by Scott Malone only a week ago. The first choice left back had just enjoyed the finest year of his career, establishing himself as one of the league’s most potent attacking full-backs and an integral part of the team that surged up the Championship table before that painful play-off defeat at Reading, but Jokanovic was content to let him move on, largely because of Sessegnon’s emergence. Signing Sessegnon to a professional contract – and rebuffing the surfeit of top clubs who had hoped to clinch his signature – was a massive statement of intent just when Fulham needed one.
In truth, Fulham were always very confident of holding onto one of their prized assets. Both Ryan and his twin brother Steven have long been highly thought of at Motspur Park and recognise the important part that the academy, overseen by Jennings, Steve Wigley and Malcolm Elias – whose value to the football club must never be understated – has proven pivotal to their development. Vital, too, was the way Jokanovic trusted Sessegnon to become a reliable figure in the club’s promotion push – his football has benefited from a regular diet of senior football and it is that experience of first-team football, which he would not be guaranteed elsewhere, that made his most important decision to date such a simple one.
The unflappable way in which Sessegnon took to professional football comes as no surprise when you spend any time with his grounded, sensible family. Even at 16, he knew he was privileged to be blessed with such prodigious talent and that hard work, as typified by the teenage star that was Scott Parker, was the key ingredient in getting even better. On my own visits to Motspur Park, it became commonplace to see Sessegnon engaged in extra practice – long after training should have finished – seeking to keep to his own high standards. At such an early age, Sessegnon reminds you of Parker in another respect: he looks every inch the consummate professional.
The highlights of his debut season still now appear incredible. A poacher’s goal against Cardiff City to mark his impressive emergence, that vital equaliser in injury-time at home to Burton Albion taken with aplomb from close range, another strike against the Bluebirds to rewrite the FA Cup’s record books, the delicious reverse ball to set up a goal against Premier League Hull City in the next round and those two superb strikes against the league leaders at Newcastle in front of the Gallowgate End. His coolness in front of goal and eagerness to run at opponents suggest that, just like Gareth Bale, he could make the transition from defender to forward to devastating effect in due course.
It couldn’t have escaped your attention that Sessegnon’s pre-season has been pretty high octane as well. While his brother has been getting a taste of senior football during the first team’s pre-season tour of Portugal, Ryan has been strutting his stuff on the international stage. Tonight, Keith Downing’s England Under 19s take on their Portuguese counterparts in the final of the European Under 19 Championships. Sessegnon’s irrepressible running helped carry the English youngsters into the semi-finals with a brilliant brace against Germany, which was little surprise as he has shone brightly on the young international stage for some time already. The fact that Fulham were keen to release him for international duty – recognising the developmental benefits of experience of tournament football despite its proximity to the start of the domestic season – was just another one of the reasons why Sessegnon feels this is the place to be.
Since Alistair Mackintosh was charged by Mohamed Al Fayed with restructuring Fulham’s academy, the club has seen more than its fair share of elite-level youngsters tread the pathway from promising teenagers to top-class performers. Lasse Vigen Christensen, Patrick Roberts, Emerson Hyndman and Moussa Dembele all pulled on the white shirt having starred in the Under-18 and Under-23 sides, but Sessegnon’s explosive first season – as well as his commitment to the club in the face of a number of alluring offers from elsewhere – has fired all of our imaginations. It isn’t hyperbole to suggest that there’s even better to come. The man himself believes it.