Much of the comment amongst the Fulham faithful as Slavisa Jokanovic’s men returned to Motspur Park for the start of pre-season training yesterday surrounded the slender nature of the Serbian’s first-team squad. With six loanees having returned to their parent clubs, fringe players being released and Ryan Fredericks having opted to sign for West Ham, Fulham’s retained list comprised of sixteen senior professionals. The concern is obvious – the top flight’s smallest squad needs significant improvement with six weeks until the start of the new Premier League season.
Giving Jokanovic greater options as he plots a path to top survival will be priority number one for Alistair Mackintosh and Tony Khan, but pre-season also provides an opportunity for the brightest talents from the Fulham academy to stake a place in the senior squad. The leading lights from one of the best youth set-ups in the country don’t need to look too far for inspiration as they begin those gruelling fitness schedules this week. Jokanovic has shown a refreshing willingness to give youth its head from the outset at Craven Cottage with Ryan Sessegnon’s spectacular emergence from promising youngster to English football’s hottest domestic property the most striking example.
Jokanovic hadn’t planned on giving sixteen year-old Sessegnon much more than a few sessions with the first-team to aid his development when Huw Jennings pointed him in the direction of the prodigiously talented schoolboy scholar a couple of summers ago. But such was Sesssegnon’s maturity and eagnerness to learn that he played a full part in the club’s pre-season preparations and earned a senior debut at Leyton Orient. He took to the helter-skelter world of professional football so seamlessly that Jokanovic soon forgot about easing the young lad in and made him a key part of the Whites’ promotion push.
In the absence of stellar signings, there are plenty of players who could follow in Sessegnon’s footsteps. The likes of Matt O’Riley, Tayo Edun and Luca de la Torre have all got a taste of first-team football over the past season with their talent outstripping their tender ages. O’Riley, whose keen eye for a pass excites Jokanovic, might have had more exposure in the senior side had he not been struck down by injury in the middle of last season, whilst de la Torre’s continued development was recognised with a full international cap for the United States last month. Beyond that trio are a few brightest prospects looking to make inroads into the first-team picture.
Fredericks’ departure so soon after Fulham’s promotion back to the top flight opens a gap at right back that many expect to be filled in the short time by Irish international Cyrus Christie, who produced a couple of promising cameos towards the end of last season. But the battle to push Christie all the way will be just as intriguing to watch between Sessegnon’s twin brother Steven, a highly-rated defender who has also played at the heart of the back four for Fulham’s youth side, and the attacking American full-back Marlon Fossey, who trained with the senior professionals yesterday.
Then there’s the Icelandic winger Jon Dagur Thorsteinsson, who had such a successful season for Peter Grant’s under 23 side last year. The 19 year-old is technically gifted and scored some stunners amongst his seven goals for the under 23s last term. He’s now a regular for the Icelandic under-21 side and could be the next young talent to break through if he continues to impress. With starting spots available for Fulham’s first set of summer friendlies, beginning with the behind-closed-doors game against Crawley Town at Motspur Park this Saturday, they’ll be a huge desire amongst the younger contingent to make an impression this week.
Those that do could follow in the footsteps of Sean Davis, whose ball-playing skills and composure in a deep midfield role so impressed Jean Tigana that he adjusted his mdifield to fit the academy graduate into the side that stormed to the Championship back in 2000. Players of the stature of Mattias Kait, who already has sixteen caps for Estonia to his name at the age of nineteen, will be desperate for an opportunity to make the step up. Then there’s the supremely talented Sonny Hilton, a gifted attacking midfielder with an eye for goal, who signed his first professional contract with the club earlier this month. And, given the quality that Jennings’ finely-tuned conveyor belt has been turning out over the last few years, you wouldn’t bet against some of them seizing their chance.