The elephant in the room as we wait to see whether Fabio Carvalho will make the move to Liverpool before the January window closes is Fulham’s ambitions to be a club that develops young talent. Producing a conveyor belt of future prospects is a laudable aspiration – and the Whites have made significant progress by transforming their academy set up under Huw Jennings – but being a category one academy will always be undermined unless the club can keep hold of their brightest stars. The biggest clubs will always poach the best players, but last summer’s academy reorganisation appears to have been a recognition that things needed to change at Motspur Park.
To an extent, Fulham are hamstrung by not playing in the Premier League at present – there will always be attractive destinations elsewhere until the Whites are able to establish themselves at the elite level of English football again. It is almost indisputable that Fulham have lost two many of their talented youngsters to the top clubs in recent years, often for a fraction of their market value. Maybe Patrick Roberts and Ryan Sessegnon recouped significant funds for the club but the likes of Mousa Dembele and, mostly recently, Mika Biereth moved on for paltry development fees. There is the added frustration that, often, those moves to the big clubs don’t work out for the player concerned. Currently, Harvey Elliott – progressing well at Anfield until a horrible injury – appears an outlier.
We can blame Fulham for how they handled these situations. The Carvalho predicament is far from the first time we have seen a burgeoning talent reach the final year of his contract and attract a swarm of suitors. We can blame Liverpool for turning the head of a prodigious talent – and this feels comfortable since Carvalho’s case is so similar to that of Elliott. But perhaps the biggest culprits at present are the agents promising riches to their clients, who will rather be playing football. A system that allows vulnerable youngsters to be viewed as commodities by all parties is manifestly unfit for purpose.
I’m less convinced that Fulham are heading for hardship should Carvalho be on his way today. Some of our sparkling performances earlier in the season came when he wasn’t in Marco Silva’s side and the squad should still have enough to clinch promotion from the Championship. It should spark some soul searching amongst the Fulham hierarchy that another bright young thing has been spirited away for a pittance – although the club would probably point to Jay Stansfield signing a contract extension last week as evidence that things are changing.
That category one academy status – and the recent success of our under 18 and under 23 sides – still makes Fulham an attractive proposition for young talent. Some of the most consistent performers under Steve Wigley should soon be in a position to get a first-team opportunity. Sylvester Jasper and Sonny Hilton are probably the likeliest to be promoted to the senior squad, whilst Ollie O’Neill and Luke Harris look ridiculously gifted for their tender ages. How we manage their development – and contractual status – going forward will be crucial for the club’s long-term health.
The structure of the Carvalho deal remains the subject of fevered speculation. Fulham have been steadfast in their insistence that he wouldn’t be leaving before the end of the season, something Silva stated publicly in Friday’s press conference. You would think it would take a massive offer to change that position – one more substantial that the £5m figure that has been splashed across the tabloids. There would need to be add-ons and clauses related to Carvalho’s future performances. There have been suggestions that we would be asking for a loan back to Craven Cottage, but I wouldn’t take him back. Either the player is fully committed to Fulham or he wants his dream move. If he leaves, we can thank him for the glimpses of his undoubted talent and move on.