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Introducing Fulham’s new academy scholars

Billy Wright runs the rule over the next batch of promising youngsters hoping to star in the Fulham academy this season …

Michael Olakigbe

Michael is a winger who can play on either wing, but his versatility is likely to see him deployed behind the strikers in a diamond for Steve Wigley’s under 18s this season. He joined Fulham from QPR in the summer of 2018 after learning his trade at the East Soccerbase Academy. Olakigbe has enormous potential and, with the right guidance and coaching could easily become another outstanding academy graduate to follow in the footsteps of Ryan Sessegnon and Marek Rodak from recent times.

The watchable winger, who qualifies for both England or Nigeria, has already drawn comparisons to Crystal Palace star Wilfried Zaha and the combination of his awesome technical ability and rapid pace leave you in no doubt as to why. Olakigbe scored an outstanding long-range strike against Reading in just his second start at under 18 level last year, demonstrating that he won’t be fazed by what is ahead of him. He’s got the ability to do the unexpected and is highly rated already at Motspur Park.

Xavier Benjamin

Xavier, a central defender who is also comfortable at right back or in the heart of the midfield, has been progressing through our the Fulham academy from the tender age of eight. The strong, athletic defender provides a real vocal presence on the pitch and his leadership qualities made him a successful captain of the under 16 side who form the bulk of this season’s scholars. The Puma athlete performed well during his outings for the under 18s pre-lockdown and, having been included in the under-23 squad for a PL2 fixture against Stoke back in February, it is clear that Fulham are impressed by his progress. With Michael Hector providing defensive coaching with the under 18s, Benjamin could pick up some valuable skills and understanding of the game from comfortably the best defender at the club.

Stefan Parkes

Parkes usually operates on the left of a back four but has previously filled in as a left-sided centre half when needed. The full back is very comfortable with the ball at his feet and is also blessed with terrific defensive skills. He’s already widely regarded as one of the most promising prospects in the academy and should shine given the emphasis placed on possession-based football at all levels of the club.

Parkes has represented his country at youth level with distinction on several occasions and was recently named captain of England’s under 15s against Belgium. He joined Fulham’s academy after Brentford scrapped their set-up and has come on impressively during his time at Motspur Park. Blessed with a wand of a left food, it is no exaggeration to suggest that Stefan could follow in the footsteps of Ryan Sessegnon and break into the first team squad at a young age should his development continue at a such a speedy rate.

Imani Lanquedoc

Imani is a strong, attacking-midfielder who loves to take on players with his brilliant dribbling ability. He’s been with Fulham’s academy since Under 11 age group, having previously being developed at Junior Elite, a programme known worldwide for developing players such as Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Emile Smith-Rowe.

A quiet individual, Imani tends to let his football do the talking – and he has a knack of both finding the net and creating goals for others. Lanquedoc is another youngster who is versatile, having shown he can operate successfully at right back. An eager tackler, who can break up opposition attacks and get Fulham going forward, means he’s far from a luxury player. Imani’s work ethic means he’ll cover plenty of ground and that industry should stand him in good stead as he looks to make an impact under Steve Wigley this year.

Jaylan Wildbore

Jaylan is a tall, strong centre forward who joined Fulham’s academy last summer from Burton Albion. He scored a hatful of goals at under 16 level over the past year and he has the ability to be another freescoring member of Steve Wigley’s under 18 set up alongside the likes of Mika Biereth and Oliver Sanderson. Wildbore has already shown tremendous character to overcome the disappointment of being released by Leicester at just 12, channelling his desire into a fantastic spell with Burton Albion, where he had plenty of scouts monitoring his progress. Jaylan’s prodigious finishing ability prompted Fulham to strike a compensation deal with the Brewers to bring him to Motspur Park and the talented talisman will now look to take his under-16 form into the campaign ahead.

Matthew Dibley-Dias

Dibley-Dias had a significant injury which saw him miss most of the 2019/20 campaign. Had he not been sidelined, the creative midfielder, who has shades of a young Phillipe Coutinho about him, would certainly have already been involved at under-18 level. Like Stefan Parkes, Matt joined the Fulham’s academy from our near neighbours Brentford. He’s a technically-gifted number ten with a real eye for goal. Fulham have high hopes for Dibley-Dias and it will be interesting to see how he performs in the coming months, with the injury setbacks hopefully behind him now.

Oliver Sanderson

Olly, a traditional centre forward, joined Fulham at Under 9 level and has already made a name for himself as a pacey forward, who loves to speed away from defences and score goals. Sanderson has regularly topped the goalscoring charts since signing for Fulham and he offers an outlet in tight games, giving his side the ability to go more direct when needed. Olly is one of the few scholars yet to feature for the under 18s, but that already shows just how much faith Fulham have in the youngster. He’s got a fantastic attitude and I have no doubt that he can flourish under Wigley and the academy coaches this season.

Sylvester Jasper – the Fulham academy’s latest star

The Motspur Park conveyor belt has a history of churning out high quality talent. Think Ryan Sessegnon, Moussa Dembele and Patrick Roberts in recent years. Fulham insiders have often spoken highly about a classy and intelligent winger in Sylvester Jasper and over the past year we have seen his talent really blossom.

Jasper’s always been a lively presence in the Fulham youth sides and he enjoyed a stellar year with Steve Wigley’s under 18s before the coronavirus lockdown brought an abrupt end to their all-conquering campaign. They were at least rewarded with the league title, if not a place in the UEFA Youth League, and Jasper was one of the team’s most consistent performers. It was no surprise, after scoring nine goals and making ten more in only eighteen games, that Jasper was promoted to the under 23s. That his talent admittedly transmitted to that level, in a much more inconsistent side, speaks volumes for the winger’s quality – Jasper registered two more assists in five games.

What is most exciting about his development is the partnerships he has forged with fellow members of the academy. Jasper has a brilliant understanding alongside Fabio Carvalho, who was recently named Fulham’s scholar of the year in recognition of his own outstanding development. The pair have played together since breaking into the club’s under 16s and it is a testament to the academy’s hard work that they are both participating in first team training ahead of Fulham’s forthcoming Premier League return.

Jasper’s elevation to the senior squad for the FA Cup tie at Manchester City might have come as a bit of surprise, but Scott Parker clearly believes in the youngster. A young manager who is not afraid to introduce burgeoning talent, as he showed by handing Jay Stansfield a senior debut off the bench against Aston Villa in the previous round, Parker introduced Jasper as a late substitute at the Etihad in what was otherwise a pretty chastening defeat. It wasn’t an isolated outing for the winger, though, with further appearances coming against Brentford and Birmingham – the latter at a time when Fulham were pushing for a late winner to keep their promotion hopes alive.

Jasper, whose outstanding year was rewarded yesterday with a richly-deserved three year contract, seems to have slotted well into the senior squad. He went on holiday with Steven Sessegnon, another recent academy graduate, and was seen celebrating promotion to the Premier League in that viral clip from Aboubakar Kamara’s Instragram Live on the Wembley turf. His integration into the first team squad is a positive sign of the harmony at Motspur Park these days, with a number of youth prospects mixing with their more senior colleagues in stark contrast to the end of the Claudio Ranieri era, for example.

What’s next for Fulham’s latest young wonderkid? It is possible that Jasper’s contract extension is the precursor to a loan move lower down the Football League pyramid, as in the case of Marek Rodak, who used that experience so impressively when he stepped into the first team in the middle of last season. You would think he would attract plenty of interest from Championship and League One sides. But Parker, a clear admirer of Jasper’s talent, might prefer to nurture the winger from closer to home even if the likes of Anthony Knockaert and Ivan Cavaleiro converting their loan spells into permanent moves make nailing a first-team spot seem tricky.

There’s no doubt that Jasper has an exceedingly bright future ahead of him and his comments after signing that new contract speak to his desire to keep improving and do his best to help the team. If Parker can channel that hunger and Jasper’s obvious ability, then Fulham could have another real star on their hands.

Where Fulham must strengthen to be competitive in the Premier League

Scott Parker’s tactical masterclass at Wembley is still fresh in the mind, but the hard work is underway to ensure Fulham’s forthcoming Premier League campaign is much more enjoyable than their last. In 2018/19, spoiled perhaps by the sparkling football that took Slavisa Jokanovic’s swashbuckling side up, Fulham fans endured a dreadfully disappointing season that saw virtually a whole new side relegated with barely a whimper. Nobody is interested in a repeat – and both Parker and director of football Tony Khan have suggested that retaining the core of the squad that has achieved promotion will be at the forefront of their minds.

That being said, it is clear to anybody that new signings are necessary to make Fulham even close to competitive in the top flight. We saw how easily the pace and power of opposition forwards can rip you apart at Premier League level and reinforcements, especially in a defence that conceded 81 league goals during that horrible season, are vital.

Right back

Fulham still haven’t adequately replaced Ryan Fredericks, who moved on to West Ham after the play-off final win over Aston Villa. Fredericks’ blistering pace was an asset in both boxes and was sorely missed over the course of a dismal season having been pivotal to our rise under Jokanovic. Cyrus Christie was a solid performer in the second half of this campaign but was proven to be well below the standard required in the top flight last term. Denis Odoi did brilliantly to keep Brentford at bay, but he’s not the answer either. Steven Sessegnon might be highly-rated but he hasn’t made much of a first-team impression since the early part of the season and a loan might be best for his own development. Fulham can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of their last experience in the top flight, where defensive naivety and giving the ball away in dangerous areas were far too commonplace.

We have yet to be linked with a right back, but it feels like a critical position to nail down early to give the new arrivals a chance to bed in. Matty Cash was a revelation once Sabri Lamouchi converted him into a right-back and I’d be wanting to test Nottingham Forest’s resolve to keep a hold of the Slough-born 23 year-old. There are already rumours that West Ham and Aston Villa are eager to offer him a shot at the Premier League and Fulham should really join that race without delay.

Centre Back

Michael Hector made such a huge difference to the durability of Fulham’s defence from January and single-handedly kept us in games with important interventions (see that sensational tackle and clearance on Robert Glatzel at Cardiff in the first leg of the play-off semi-final). While he would see your starting centre back, it is his first taste of Premier League football and it will be interesting to see if he can be quite as dominant at a higher level. Tim Ream did well at Wembley but was badly out of his depth two seasons ago. The American’s service to the club and ball-playing ability should see him remain part of the squad, but at least another centre back is vital. Both Alfie Mawson and Maxime Le Marchand have been poor since arriving a couple of summers ago and I would investigate the possibility of going back in for Huddersfield’s Terence Kongolo, who got injured just when his loan spell was getting up and running. His outstanding tackle on Gabriel Jesus in an otherwise forgettable pasting by Manchester City sticks in the memory and I’d love to see whether he could forge a powerful partnership with Hector at the back.

Winger

The indifferent displays of Anthony Knockaert and Ivan Cavaleiro gave Neeskens Kebano a late opportunity to impress as our promotion push really picked up and, although the Congolese winger, really came to the party, I feel we are going to need more dynamism out wide when the season kicks off. I’d love to bring Ryan Babel, so successful on loan, back to the Cottage. I’m fully aware that will be eighteen months older than the last time he pulled on a white shirt, but his Premier League experience, eye for goal, and pace would be tremendous assets to a side that has looked worryingly predictable at times in the Championship. I can only agree with Mawson’s assessment from the tail end of last season: ‘If we had him from the start of the season we would’ve had a lot better chance of staying up’.

If Babel’s age makes a permanent move a non-starter, there are younger alternatives around. I’d be tempted to make an audacious move for Daniel James, whose opportunities at Manchester United are likely to be restricted by the strength of the squad that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has to pick from. He was only a substitute as United struggled to breakdown FC Copenhagen in the Europa League on Monday and he has been left kicking his heels on the sidelines an awful lot this. James’ work ethic would mean that he could provide the necessary defensive cover, whilst his pace would add a different dimension in the final third to anything that Fulham have currently got.

Striker

There’s no doubt that Aleksandar Mitrovic, who has now scored 49 goals in a hundred Fulham appearances, will be the first name on the teamsheet when our Premier League campaign gets underway – and deservedly so. He was outstanding in a dismal team the last time we were at this level and I’d back him to better eleven goals this time around. But there is a strong case to supplement our striking resources should anything happen to the Serbian. I’m not convinced by Bobby Decordova-Reid, who covered plenty of ground but lacked the finishing touch in the Championship, and I feel that Aboubakar Kamara is better suited to playing out wide. Jay Stansfield is a hell of a prospect but it’s probably a little too early to throw him into top flight football.

I’d be happy with our rumoured pursuit of Ivan Toney bearing fruit. He’s been in outstanding form for Peterborough, having scored 24 goals in 26 appearances in League One. He’d probably be willing to be a squad rotation option in the Premier League and has something to prove at this level, having been released by Rafa Benitez at Newcastle. The difficult part will be beating off significant competition for Toney’s signature, with Leeds, West Brom and Celtic all apparently hoping to land the 24 year-old.

Three Fulham academy stars to watch

Cody Drameh

The energetic full back has heavily impressed at both U23 and U18 level this season. Cody played a crucial part in the U18 journey in the FA Youth Cup, creating several goals for his teammates and scoring one himself, whilst also maintaining his defensive duties to a great standard. Having trained with the first team all season long, it is a surprise to me that Cody has yet to make a senior appearance.

He is the first choice right-back for the U23, pushing Marlon Fossey, who’s just come back from a long term injury, to left back. On occasions the pair have alternated but with the ability and work rate which Cody possesses, it would be hard for anyone to take his place on a team sheet.

Drameh has featured for England U18’s on a few occasions and whilst it’s clear to see that he is winning all the plaudits for his excellent performances, the stats are also in his favour; he has 7 assists in 17 games for the PL2 side which is incredible for any full back at any level. His goal contribution of 26% shows that Cody is clearly excelling at youth level and I believe he should be tested at senior level and under the guidance of Scott Parker and Stuart Gray, we could have a real player on our hands.

Fabio Carvalho

The promising starlet is an England U18 international, playing at a higher international level than former teammate Harvey Elliott, he is a footballer who would heavily appeal to a statistician as the attacking midfielder has 15 goal contributions in 21 league youth appearances. Having made U18 football look too easy for him, Carvalho was quickly promoted to the PL2 squad where he has been the star performer all season.

Carvalho’s contract is up in the summer of 2021 and the club will surely offer him a new deal to keep the bigger clubs out of interest from snapping up arguably the most promising player in the academy.

Having seen teammates Jay Stansfield and Sylvester Jasper both make the transition from youth to first team football, Fabio has every right to feel hard done by that he hasn’t replicated the successes of his colleagues. Once described as one of the ‘20 talents to watch in England’ by The Guardian, Carvalho will almost definitely be a part of Scott Parker’s pre-season plans.

Martell Taylor-Crossdale

The dominant striker has scored twice in two appearances for the England Under 20 side and his poaching ability within the box is like no other. His scoring instincts meant that Fulham had to compete with several clubs abroad to secure his services. Unlike Cody and Fabio, Martell has featured for Fulham, appearing in the Carabao Cup defeat to Southampton earlier on in the season.
Martell, who we signed from Chelsea in the summer has scored a goal every three games for an under-performing PL2 team, and his huge presence on the pitch has been integral to the PL2 side. What tends to happen with strikers is that they are based purely on stats, however, Martell looks good stats-wise but his class and know how on the field shows spectators that it is only a matter of time before he breaks through into our first team and pushes the likes of Aleksander Mitrovic for a name in a matchday squad in the future.

Having came through the same Chelsea youth team as the likes of Callum Hudson-Odoi, who was there to see Martell score a hat trick vs Reading u23s earlier on in the season, and also the likes of Reece James and Billy Gilmour, Martell will undoubtedly have the desire to follow in the successes of such players and I believe that he needs to feature in our first team in the near future to help continue his excellent development.

Stansfield salvages a point for Fulham U18s

A clinical finish from Jean-Pierre Tiehi and a late Jay Stansfield free-kick salvaged a point for Fulham’s under 18s in an entertaining clash with Aston Villa this afternoon.

Ravaged by injuries, Steve Wigley was forced to deploy four centre halves in an unusual line-up. The changes gave sixteen year-old Xavier Benjamin the opportunity to show his capabilities on the right of a diamond, with Scottish youth international Connor McAvoy filling in at right back due to the lack of options. There was also a start for promising keeper George Wickens, who returned after a five month injury lay-off. Young striker Stansfield started again after his impressive brace against Southampton last weekend.

Villa went in front after twenty minutes after forward DJ Campton-Sturridge took a theatrical tumble in the penalty area and earned a spot-kick. Hayden Lindley’s effort came back off the post but Charlie Farr was the quickest to react and fired home the loose ball. Wigley’s young side might have been dispirited but they fought back admirably. Jean-Pierre Tiehi continued his fine run of form, scoring his fourth goal in six games, with a delightful finish six minutes before half-time, but the forward was forced off with an injury after a crunching tackle – which saw him on crutches after the game – before the interval.

The introduction of Imani Lanquedoc saw Mika Biereth deployed as a striker alongside Jay Stansfield, having previously operated behind Stansfield and Tiehi up until the substitution. Villa were certainly physical in their approach, with several heavy challenges aimed at Stansfield in particular, for which the referee issued three yellow cards.

A disappointing lapse in defensive concentration allowed Campton-Sturridge to restore Villa’s lead ten minutes into the second half when he clinically converted Cameron Archer’s clever pass. Fulham looked uncharacteristically lethargic until wonderkid Michael Olakigbe, fresh from a sensational performance against Watford, was summoned from the bench. The winger made an almost immediate impact, waltzing past a couple of defenders and winning a free-kick just outside the area. Stansfield stepped up and found the net with the aid of a massive deflection – earning a point with two minutes to play despite a below-par performance.

FULHAM U18s (4-3-1-2): Wickens (7); McAvoy (6), Murphy (6), Bowat (5, Olakigbe 86, 7), Odutayo (7); Page (6), Benjamin (6), O’Neill (7); Biereth (6); Tiehi (7, Lanquedoc 45, 5); Stansfield (8). Subs (not used): McNally, Araujo

GOALS: Tiehi (39), Stansfield (88).

ASTON VILLA U23s (4-3-3): Onodi; Farr, Sylla, Lindley, Sohna; Goodridge (Reddin 55), Appiah, Raikhy; Archer, Young, Campton-Sturridge (Rowe 84) Subs (not used): Marshall, Sewell, Ealing.

BOOKED: Lindley, Sohna, Sylla, Farr.

GOALS: Farr (20), Campton-Sturridge (53).