After flying over from Portugal to take over at Fulham, Marco Silva had to quarantine for a week in a central London hotel. The new head coach made it clear to his staff that they would make the most of the unusual circumstances to be clued up on all the resources that were soon to be at their disposal. Silva’s first request was for a detailed player profile on each member of the club’s category one academy. Having digested the assessments compiled by Steve Wigley, Huw Jennings, Colin Omogbehin and Dan Thomas, Silva then set up a series of inter-squad games to test some of the leading young talent when he was able to take training at Motspur Park.
The benefits of that quickly became apparent in Silva’s first few weeks in the job. Several of the club’s brightest young starlets quickly established themselves as players of real potential when joining in with first team training. The emergence of Fabio Carvalho into the starting number ten might not have been much of a surprise – especially considering his mature Premier League displays at the end of a forgettable season – but there’s no doubt that the way the attacking midfielder was considered integral to Silva’s plans in pre-season has helped him take the Championship by storm. The progress made by Tyrese Francois was such that the Australian midfielder was handed a league debut on the opening weekend of the season and he certainly didn’t look out of place.
The League Cup has become a breeding ground for the next generation in recent years. Whilst the youthful faces didn’t quite match the way Slavisa Jokanovic blooded several academy graduates at Leyton Orient five years ago, there were notable displays at St. Andrew’s last night from two regular stars in Fulham’s youth sides over the past couple of seasons. We know plenty about Jay Stansfield, whose outstanding first season after signing from Exeter saw him handed a first team debut by Scott Parker. The teenage striker’s development might have been hindered by a bad ankle fracture, but the young Stansfield has dealt with plenty of adversity in his life to recognise that waiting to make his mark on professional football was not the worst thing in the world. The quality of his finish against Birmingham – high into Neil Etheridge’s top corner – after making the most of a bit of space outside the box spoke to his almost limitless potential. It was an emotional moment, given that Jay’s father Adam was a lower-league striker of real repute before bowel cancer took him far too soon at the age of 31.
Stansfield’s striking first senior goal hogged the headlines, but quietly Kosovan midfielder Adrion Pajaziti had an efficient and composed debut at the heart of a youthful midfield – alongside Francois. The classy ball-player’s potential has been an open secret at the Fulham academy for some time, with the confidence that the club’s coaches had in his ability underlined by the fact that he made his debut for the under 18s as a fifteen year old in 2018. He captained that side last season, but his progression was so stark that Pajaziti, a perceptive passer and willing worker in the engine room, actually made more appearances for the under-23’s last term. What was so stark about his first senior start was the fact that he dealt so adeptly with any attempt to rough him up – always showing for the ball and keeping it moving with a modicum of fuss. Silva elevated Pajaziti into his starting line-up because of concerns about the number of minutes wracked up by Jean Michael Seri and Josh Onomah recently and he didn’t let anyone down.
The story of how Alistair Mackintosh tempted Huw Jennings to what he described as ‘London’s heritage club’ in 2009 and the construction of one of English football’s most successful academies has been well chronicled. There was a sense, however, over the past eighteen months that too many young talents were passing through the formative years of their footballing education unfulfilled. The pathway that had provided a route to senior football for the likes of Marcus Bettinelli, Ryan and Steven Sessegnon, Patrick Roberts, Harvey Elliott and Moussa Dembele had become blocked. Several under-23s players were disappointed by the fact that they were not given the senior game time they had been promised, with a few opting to leave.
That explains, at least in part, why Fulham restructured their academy set up over the summer. Jennings moved from academy director to become the club’s new head of football development and Omogbehin, who had previously coached the under 23s alongside Mark Pembridge, was given a new position as first team development coach, designed to help guide some of the best young talent towards the first team. The early signs – coupled with Silva’s enthusiastic embrace of the goal of getting more homegrown youngsters into his senior squad – are promising.
It should be said that these are challenging times for youth development. Plenty of clubs are cutting down on the funding of their academies or closing them altogether, dissuaded by both the post-Brexit complexities of scouting international talent and the all-too-familiar prospect of the vultures circling to sign their prized assets for a pittance. Jennings now holds responsibility for reshaping Fulham’s recruitment both domestically and overseas in a difficult post-pandemic environment, with the difficulties of signing up youngsters from further afield all too apparent but Fulham are not about to turn away from their academy. The club’s hierarchy believe it remains one of their biggest assets and, with a manager eager to give the cream of its crop regular exposure to senior football, the future looks very bright.