It began as I was walking along Stevenage Road, just past the Hammersmith End, to where I had returned after picking up a ticket for our trip to Ipswich at the end of the month. Two middle-aged men were in earnest conversation about the first 90 minutes of the season:
MAN 1: ‘I thought Sessegnon was poor today.’
MAN 2: ‘Really poor. He’ll never make a left back.’
MAN 1: ‘He just let the Norwich guy get past him every time. He’s a liability’.
MAN 2: ‘Yeah, he has to be one of the poorest left backs we’ve had …’
MAN 1: ‘We must get an upgrade in that position. Can’t be relying on him all season’
It was at this point that I caught up to the two men. I wondered about whether I should reveal my earwigging of their chat and then thought, because I’m quite a vociferous individual anyway, that it would be worth standing up for quite possibly the most promising youngster we’ve seen at the Cottage in a while. Man 1 was already looking at the way I was walking anyway (I’ve got cerebral palsy, so that’s an everyday occurrence) and I told him I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation. I asked them if, in future, they’d consider that Sessegnon has only just turned seventeen, played a significant number of games in that position last season when Fulham reached the play-offs and is already twice the player that Carlos Salcido ever was when he donned the black and white. Silence followed and so, after wishing the pair well, I walked on enjoying the August sunshine on the River Thames.
It would be quite legitimate to suggest that Norwich’s three most dangerous attacks of the first half came down the Fulham left. It is also fair to say that Daniel Falke’s side could have been three up by the close of the opening twenty minutes. Sessegnon certainly had a tough time against an adventurous right wing-back in Yanic Wildschut. That is going to happen as he learns the defensive side of his game at senior level. Perhaps people have forgotten that the saintly Scott Malone was also susceptible defensively and, indeed, conceded two spot-kicks in the corresponding fixture last season.
It must also be said that Slavisa Jokanovic’s system asks an awful lot of a full-back. Sessegnon is required to bomb forward in support of a winger who himself is deployed in an ultra-offensive fashion, which can see him caught high up the pitch regularly. On the flip side of that, there isn’t the protection for a young full-back that Sessegnon might have enjoyed in a Roy Hodgson side for example. For much of the first half yesterday, Stefan Johansen was gamely battling to plug the gaps left by Neeskens Kebano on the left – leaving Fulham’s defensive shield all out of kilter. When Falke threw on Josh Murphy on the hour mark, it made sense for Sessegnon to be sacrificed for a more orthodox full-back in Denis Odoi. It’s worth remembering that Sessegnon wasn’t on the pitch when Norwich’s equaliser arrived.
Jokanovic has made it plain that he wants another body at left back and, reading Shahid Khan’s programme notes yesterday, that might have made something of an impression on the Fulham owner. People seem to expect a seventeen year old to transition from promising player into Gareth Bale overnight. Sessegnon won’t elbow aside Ayite, Kebano or even Lucas Piazon from the starting left-wing berth at the moment – and his lungbusting runs are an immense asset from deep. He’s got a whole set of drills designed to help him become a more effective full back and has come on leaps and bounds during his first season in senior football.
Slating the club’s prize asset is also an exceptionally odd way to react when you remember that he ignored serious interest from Europe’s best sides to continue his development at a club he has come to love. This wasn’t just the isolation take of two guys walking away from the Cottage. There were plenty of tweets filling timelines last night about how the hype had got to Sessegnon and message boards contributions were coating him as well. It’s time for a bit of a perspective as well as recognition that even the finest prospects can have poor games.
I thought Tom Cairney was below the very high standards he sets himself yesterday and can’t have been the only one to wince when he was clattered by a two-footed tackle in the second half that went unpunished by a ‘let’s keep playing’ referee in the form of Robert Jones. Equally, Johansen took a while to warm to the task but if anyone was responsible for how Fulham alarmingly ceded space and the initiative to their visitors it was probably the head coach himself. Making three changes so swiftly in the second half meant that Cairney couldn’t be protected and the removal of Oliver Norwood badly disrupted Fulham’s rhythm in a crucial area of the pitch.
The salient point remains that Sessgnon, like any Fulham player, should be supported throughout – especially as someone who has made such great strides since coming through the ranks. It is natural to expect him to be a world beater given the way he took to professional football last year, but it is also unrealistic. Let’s be fair to the young man and treasure the talent he brings to the white shirt. Doing anything else is just silly.