The news that Fulham have promoted Steve Wigley to become head coach of their under-23 side, after a successful spell in caretaker charge, can only be viewed as a positive move. Wigley has been an integral part of the revival of the Fulham academy under Huw Jennings and Alistair Mackintosh in two spells with the club, beginning in 2012 when he first took charge of the under-18 side. His achievements with that age group have been stellar from the outset.
Wigley won Fulham’s first U18 league title in his first season and led the young Whites to a prestigious Dallas Cup success in the same season. He followed that up by taking a new side all the way to the FA Youth Cup final, where the young Whites were cruelly beaten 8-7 on aggregate by a contentious late winner at Stamford Bridge. Just as important as the results on the pitch was the development of young talent, a key early aspiration of Mohamed Al-Fayed when he took over at Craven Cottage but something that proved significantly harder to achieve until the arrival of Jennings and Malcolm Elias in quick succession a decade ago.
Wigley’s methods and day-to-day nurturing saw the likes of Cauley Woodrow, George Williams, Emerson Hyndman, Moussa Dembele and Patrick Roberts move swiftly through the pathway from his under-18 outfit to the first team – a process hastened when Kit Symons took over as senior manager. Just as significant was Fulham’s success in luring Wigley back to Motspur Park after his spell as assistant to Stuart Pearce at Nottingham Forest came to an end. He has added two consecutive under 18 titles in the past two seasons – establishing attacking principles alongside a demand for hard work as Fulham have firmly established themselves as one of the country’s leading academies. Just how comfortable Fabio Carvalho looks at senior level is arguably a tribute not just to the teenager’s natural talent but his time under the tutelage of Wigley and the club’s other younger age group coaches.
Whilst the under-18 side has been sweeping all before them of late (Wigley has lost just nine games of 51 in since returning to the fold), Fulham have stagnated at under 23-level over the past couple of seasons. Some of this is undoubtedly down to the nature of the competition – the newer age group has never felt as natural a fit as its under-21 predecessor or the reserve games of old, lacking a bit of intensity and with plenty of players wondering whether they will ever make the step up to senior football if they are past 21. There was a significant drop off in performances under both Peter Grant and Mark Pembridge, who is understood to have left the club after eighteen years at Motspur Park, with the club dropping into the second division of the PL2 as well as concern that Fulham’s famed youth development pathway had developed a blockage.
When the club advertised the recruitment of a new head coach at under-23 level following the academy restructure that saw Colin Omogbehin handed a new first-team development position, it was thought Fulham were seeking an external appointment. Wigley took over the reigns on a temporary basis as well as continuing to oversee the development of an almost entirely new under 18 side. It helped that many of the under 23 squad were familiar with his methods have stepped up from the under 18s, but the early results told their own story. Four wins and a draw from their first six fixtures have the Whites level on points with Aston Villa at the top of the table as well as an adventurous and energetic style of play that mirrors how Marco Silva has got the first team operating.
Creative talent, like Sonny Hilton, no longer seems stifled and the emergence of Ollie O’Neill and young Luke Harris at this level shows a commitment to giving players an opportunity regardless of their age. There is significant firepower at Wigley’s disposal, with Jay Stansfield having already demonstrated his eye for goal on the senior stage this season and Finnish forward Terry Ablade having found the net four times in five outings. That’s before Jean-Pierre Tiehi is reintroduced to the set up having reversed course and put pen to paper on a two-year deal last week.
Fulham’s under 23s head to King’s Lynn to take on Norwich City in their latest league fixture tonight in good heart. Wigley, a proven producer of precious talent, now has an opportunity to guide more young starlets towards the first team set up.