One of the most pleasing elements about Saturday’s hard-earned pointed in the heat of Molineux was the way Marco Silva’s side finished the game. Heads didn’t drop after Aleksandar Mitrovic’s failure from the penalty spot, but Fulham dug deeper to keep a precious clean sheet. There were experienced heads on the field (we should continue to commend Tim Ream’s excellence at the heart of the defence, for instance) but the role of Fulham’s academy has been overlooked. I wrote on Sunday about how moving it was for me to see Jay Stansfield make his Premier League debut from the bench – and we owe Exeter most of the credit for the teenage forward’s development – but there were two other men largely made at Motspur Park who helped the Whites hold on for a share of the spoils.
Marek Rodak’s Fulham career was presumed over for much of the summer. The commentary on social media, in particular, focused on his failings from last season, rather than acknowledging that the Slovakian international – who joined the club from Kosice as a sixteen year-old – had played a pivotal part in two promotions. The goalkeeper had never previously had a chance to prove himself at Premier League level, having been demoted to the bench by the arrival of Alphonse Areola, and he has worked hard so far to keep the shirt ahead of new signing Bernd Leno. Everyone still presumes it remains a case of when and not if the German international usurps Rodak as Fulham’s first choice, but the 25 year-old did his charges of a longer run in the first time no harm by keeping the club’s first top flight clean sheet since March 2021.
As well as turning to Stansfield to offer fresh legs from the bench to a squad that has been depleted by injuries, Silva sent on Tyrese Francois, another academy graduate who was thought to be leaving the Cottage this summer. The midfielder, who hails from Campbelltown in New South Wales, told Mark Schwarzer last year that he was ready to explore all of his options with his contract up at the end of the season. That looked like meaning a move abroad, but Fulham were able to keep hold of the inaugural winner of the Fulham Supporters’ Trust’s Johnny Haynes Trophy for the academy player of the year, principally because of Silva’s commitment to blood the club’s bright young stars. Francois, who was handed his full debut at the Portuguese head coach on the opening weekend of the last campaign against Middlesbrough, was able to offer extra energy to shut down Wolves in the searing heat and showed a desire to take the attack to the opposition deep into stoppage time.
The importance of the club’s category one academy, the product of a painstaking ten year revolution at Motspur Park overseen by Alistair Mackintosh, Huw Jennings, Malcolm Elias and Steve Wigley, has only grown given Fulham’s struggles to stay within the EFL and Premier League’s Financial Fair Play footprint. Producing your own young stars is the only way to avoid paying out big sums on the type of players required to compete at the top level – and Fulham have done brilliantly at that in the past few years. The likes of Ryan Sessegnon will come along once in a blue moon (and the predatory nature of the big clubs paired with the presence of parasitic agents promising the world to young players means we won’t always get the value for the players we produce), but convincing the likes of Stansfield and Francois to commit their futures to the club suggests the Whites are getting better at holding onto their own.
The easiest way to ensure that our homegrown talent remains at Craven Cottage and progresses through to a lengthy career in the white shirt is by bucking the yo-yo trend, but that is much easier said than done – as the Khans have found out since they bought the club from Mohamed Al-Fayed. But Silva has made an excellent start in making his rather threadbare squad competitive even as he waits for the final pieces of Fulham’s jigsaw to fit together in the tail end of the transfer window. He has shown a penchant for picking the best academy prospects and offering them an opportunity to train with the first team – as shown by his use of the gifted Luke Harris over the summer.
The Welsh teenager, a frequent source of goals from midfield for Steve Wigley’s PL2 promotion winning outfit last year, scored a sensational hat-trick against a Chelsea under 21 side packed with senior experience at Kingsmeadow on Monday. Harris has already featured on the first team bench against Liverpool and helped tilt the balance of the final pre-season friendly against Villarreal back towards the Whites when he came on as a late substitute at Craven Cottage at the end of July. Having signed a two-year scholarship in the summer in the face of interest from all across Europe, it is just a matter of time before Harris, who captains his country at under 19 level, makes a first senior appearance. He’s almost certain to be involved in the League Cup tie at Crawley Town, barring injury, of course.
Harris isn’t the only promising youngster who Fulham have managed to keep hold of this summer. Ollie O’Neill, an erudite and exceptionally talented midfielder who also starred for Wigley’s under 23s last term, was the subject of a tug of war between the Whites, who were desperate for him to stay with them, and several leading Premier League clubs, including West Ham and Tottenham. The Irish under-21 international opted to accept Fulham’s offer of a new deal during the close season and has been rewarded with the captain’s armband as the under 21s returned to the top flight. O’Neill has proved worthy of succeeding Sonny Hilton in that leadership role already, scoring one and creating another as the Whites beat the Hammers 3-0 at Motspur Park in the first league game of the season and skippering the side to a fine win over Chelsea on Monday night.
Hilton, the most recent winner of that Johnny Haynes’ award after a superb season with the under 21s, has gone on loan to Carlisle United, where he is working under one of his old England youth coaches in Paul Simpson. Finding the right opportunity for Fulham’s youngsters to get a taste of senior football is one of the toughest tasks for the head honchoes in the academy. Done well it can prove transformational for a young player’s career: just how ask both Marcus Bettinelli, who progressed through Fulham’s youth set up from the age of thirteen and made 120 first-team appearances for the Whites, how helpful his early loan experiences at Dartford and Accrington Stanley were for his development. Rodak, who succeeded him in goal also learnt his trade on loan with Farnborough, Welling, Accrington and Rotherham. That path to senior football is also being utilised by Kieron Bowie, who scored his first EFL goal for Northampton last night, and Taye Ashby-Hammond, who has quickly become Steve Evans’ number one at Stevenage and kept his first Football League clean sheet at home to Rochdale last night.
Fans will always build a special bond with a young player coming through the ranks to the senior side. That’s why there’s so much love for Sean Davis, the only player to have appeared in all four divisions for the club, even if the legendary midfielder – who scored those special stoppage-time goals against Blackburn and Sheffield Wednesday to win the Division One title under Jean Tigana – now admits he should never have left Craven Cottage for Spurs in 2004. Some of the intricacies of running a category one academy will always need to remain under wraps, but Fulham’s progress in creating the stars of tomorrow should be commended and celebrated in equal measure. It is a sure fire to become sustainable in the long-term, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.