With relegation, typically there is some belt-tightening and a shrinking of the budget. Senior players leave as the playing squad gets smaller and the wage budget drops. Teams with well-run academies will look to promote their graduates into their first-team squad. Fulham, having experienced dropping out of the top flight relatively recently, have a good record in this respect. Marcus Bettinelli became a contender for the number one shirt almost straightaway, Moussa Dembele forged a formidable strike partnership alongside Ross McCormack and most notably Ryan Sessegnon, who had won promotion via the play-offs, become Championship Player of the Year, Young Championship Player of the Year, Championship Apprentice of the Year and twice selected in the Championship Team of the Year and was the first player to ever be nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year award from outside of the Premier League. All that before he turned nineteen.
In terms of contributions to the football club, those three are likely the most successful, but that doesn’t understate the impact of gaining £12m from Patrick Roberts, or getting a stellar year out of Lasse Vigen Christensen (which saw him named third in the clubs Player of the Season vote) plus further income as he was sold to Brondby. Emerson Hyndman, Jack Grimmer, Dan Burn and Cauley Woodrow all featured consistently while Tayo Edun, Luca De La Torre, Dennis Adeniran and Stephen Humphrys earned Championship minutes. It shouldn’t need stressing that Fulham’s academy is a vital resource for free talent, developed within your system and familiar to your set up. Philosophically, I believe that when there’s a gap in your squad your eyes should be looking to your academy before the transfer market – a view that is shared by the likes of Huw Jennings at Motspur Park.
A novice manager like Scott Parker might be resistant to throwing in some of the kids early in his tenure, but Parker has been around the club whilst the academy has been churning out a conveyor belt of young talent and already shown his willingness to give some of the brightest prospects an opportunity. It seems a great shame that Harvey Elliott, who Parker gave a couple of Premier League substitutes’ appearances to late in the season, wil be moving on to pastures new. The question is who will Parker be looking to include over the summer with a small senior squad already slimmed down by a number of international call-ups.
Two years on loan at Rotherham with a League One play-off promotion success and a year in the Championship, Rodak comes back to Fulham with a strong reputation. Rotherham was the perfect place for Rotherham to develop as he was by far the most active goalkeeper in the division. He was only bettered by saves in general thanks to Sam Johnstone’s three extra games (two via the playoffs), come to the end of the 46 game season, Rodak led the division in that department. Though goalkeepers are hard to quantify purely by using numbers, on face value they don’t tend to take into account style of the team played in or communication and organisation of a defence and that’s where the eye test comes in. I’ve watched Marek Rodak since he joined the club at 16, and have said for years he’s one of the best I’ve seen at youth level. A modern goalkeeper, Marek is a sensational shot-stopper on a tall and lean frame that like Sergio Rico will elect to punch, Rodak’s distribution is of a strong level also but consistent long balls playing for lowly Rotherham distorts the numbers somewhat. Rodak should be part of the squad this coming season and compete with Marcus Bettinelli for the starting position and I’d back him to take it; the Slovakian is a big reason as to why I don’t think we should sign a keeper this summer.
It’s criminal that O’Riley has just fewer than 10 appearances despite being around the first team for two years. A classy holding midfield player, O’Riley has been linked to a move to Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal and both Manchester clubs in the past for a reason. Possessing every attribute required to be an excellent modern-day deep-lying playmaker, O’Riley’s left foot can cover every blade of grass and not only is his range of passing of quality, but he can also thread passes of precision through opposition midfield and defences. A local born in Hounslow, O’Riley was set to become the ideal type, in theory, to replace Kevin McDonald in the holding role of Slavisa Jokanovic’s 4-3-3 system but with Premier League football came investment that saw O’Riley play just five minutes of senior football. Central midfield remains one of the tougher positions to transition from youth football to the senior stuff but England youth international O’Riley should be seen as one to provide depth, more so than an Ibrahima Cisse in my personal opinion.
Luca De La Torre:
Luca joined Fulham at 15 and has been admired by the academy ever since. An attacking midfielder, De La Torre can play on either wing or in the hole comfortably and possesses a direct dribbling ability as well as being able to pick out a pass. At the Under 20 World Cup in 2017, Luca De La Torre was top assister for the American side that surprised many in reaching the last eight and was man-of-the-match in Fulham’s League Cup win at Millwall last September, but then bizarrely wasn’t selected for the senior side again. With Fulham’s relegation and a cutting of the budget, I truly believe that De La Torre would be a competent option out wide. In our promotion season, the goal contribution from fringe wingers Neeskens Kebano and Sheyi Ojo was six each and, although the analysis of the position is deeper than goals and assists alone, it does highlight that the bar to success is not too high. Why spend money, wages or loan fees on elsewhere to provide depth on the wings when Luca could well do that for you? There’s being ambitious, and then there’s being smart. De La Torre possesses talent that that can shine in the Championship and has the perfect personality to be a complimentary piece in a promotion chasing side.
With similar potential to his twin brother, Steven’s progress was halted by a nasty knee injury picked up on international duty with the England U16s but prior to then, Steven and Ryan Sessegnon were part of a Fulham under 16 team that won the 2015 Under-16 Premier League International Cup alongside the likes of Matt O’Riley. In this tournament, whilst Ryan took home the award of attacker of the tournament as Steven won the defender award which is a perfect analogy when comparing the two. Whilst Ryan always had the flashier attacking production, Steven was always the superior defender; capable of playing all three defensive positions can produce in the final third as his performances in the 2017 Under 17 World Cup displayed, contributing four assists in five matches from the right-back position displaying a delightful delivery as England won their first World Cup at any level since 1966.
I honestly believe that Cyrus Christie is a fine Championship right back, but the competition will be strong from Steven and fellow academy graduate Marlon Fossey. Steven, unlike his brother, has dedicated his future to the club as he signed a contract to the football club until 2023 at the latest. The previous Championship campaign saw a few talented young full-backs break onto the scene, namely Max Aarons of Norwich and Jayden Bogle of Derby and Fulham will hope that Steven Sessegnon can stake his claim to be the next of that ilk and rejoin his brother in the eyes of the mainstream footballing world as part of England’s future.
The last of my ones to keep an eye on, I believe Tyrese is criminally looked over when people discuss those that could break into the first team. Suited to a Slavisa Jokanovic style of play, Francois is a diminutive central midfield player who possesses the technical ability to keep the ball ticking over. While his frame doesn’t appear to be top level, he possesses what is almost a bizarre speed in central midfield, like a winger in a way which allows him to press ferociously, recover possession and move into space in a really unique way I don’t recall seeing often in the game. Francois has been with the first team often through the previous year or so and has featured in friendlies but yet to make his first team debut, this season could be the one as Fulham could continue to use the Capital One Cup as an opportunity for these to experience first team football and spaces could open up in the central midfield position.