The Under 18’s capped a glorious season at Craven Cottage on Sunday after defeating Reading 3-0 to retain the Barclays Under 18 Premier League trophy.
Coming into the game, Reading were on a run of 11 straight wins with powerhouse striker Uche Ikpeazu in blistering form having already amassed 28 goals this season. Fulham on the other hand had taken their foot right off the gas with 3 wins in their last 5 games including a nail biting semi-final where a 4 goal lead was nearly lost.
The Fulham team was unchanged from that semi-final in midweek, with Rodak continuing in goal behind a back four of Passley, Donnelly, Arthurworrey and Richards. The central midfield was Hyndman and Sambou (as it had been for the majority of the season) flanked by Roberts and Tankovic who dropped into midfield to allow Dembele to partner Woodrow up front.
A strong bench was named: Oberschmidt, Burgess, Baba, Della Verde and Evans. Dan O’Reilly missed out, as did George Williams and Dean O’Halloran, both long term injured.
Fulham started the game brightly, especially down the right hand side where Passley was able to launch a few crosses in and Roberts in his usual fashion manoeuvred into the box but was eventually crowded out. There was real intent early on as Reading were put under pressure in possession, great work from Sambou in stealing the ball eventually leading to a Woodrow cross that flashed across goal.
Reading crafted their first threat down the left with Fosu’s skilful running though the long shot he eventually laid on was blocked well by the Fulham defence. Moments later it appeared that a more direct approach from the visitors would bring their first clear cut chance but for Arthurworrey who recovered well to close down Tanner and force a corner.
It was more direct play that brought about Fulham’s first chance, Woodrow heading on a Rodak clearance for Dembele to run onto, only for his left foot shot inside the area to be blocked for a corner.
A series of counters from either side ended with Roberts finding himself some space on the left. He cut it back to Dembele on the edge of the box who managed to work the ball onto his right foot and unleash a curling effort into the top corner of the Reading goal.
FULHAM 1 (Dembele) READING 0
That delightful effort appeared to kick Fulham on to a higher gear, Sambou firing a shot at goal from 25 yards before Passley fed in a couple of crosses, the latter being headed wide by Woodrow towards the far post.
Shortly after, an attack that was becoming frequent should have doubled Fulham’s lead. Dembele anticipated a flick-on from Woodrow’s aerial success to leave him running at goal with only the keeper to beat. The young Frenchman opted to round the keeper but took the ball just too far and had to double back before firing over the bar.
Whilst it looked like Fulham would be the next to score, Reading were still plugging away at the other end, a smart Rodak save denying Fosu an equaliser from distance, before Passley offered up possession and ended up having to give away a free kick a few yards outside the box, only for Tanner to place his effort over the bar, taking a touch on the way through. A bit of a scramble ensued from the corner with Rodak punching high into the air before danger was eventually eased.
It was straight down the other end, Roberts feeding Woodrow who chipped a delightful through ball for Dembele who took his chance this time, sliding the ball past the keeper for 2-0. The Reading defence had played for an offside call that never came and paid for it.
FULHAM 2 (Dembele) READING 0
Reading to their credit continued to push for a goal, Passley heading away a Reading cross before Kuhl had a shot blocked. There was still time in the first half for Arthurworrey, Dembele and Tankovic to fire efforts on goal, as well as Roberts to suffer an unfortunate bobble after beating 3 men and bursting into the box.
HALF TIME: FULHAM 2 READING 0
Reading, as expected came out all guns blazing and were looking to up the tempo whilst Steve Wigley was looking for his side to press high and stop any attacks at source. Hyndman nearly made it 3-0 after good play by Tankovic on the edge of the box before he released the ball into the path of the young American who was only stopped by Lincoln’s legs.
Up the other end, Craig Tanner was pushing forward closer to Ikpeazu and managed to get a shot off that Rodak saved well to his right. Tanner was increasingly getting a foothold in the game for the visitors but Sambou was working hard to stop him, as well as the rest of the defence who were doing well to crowd out any attacks, Arthurworrey particularly winning the battle of the giants as Ikpeazu struggled to assert any dominance.
Fulham managed to break down the left with Richards flying along the touchline; his cross managing to pick out the only player to keep up with him, but Dembele’s diving header was placed wide. Reading were on the attack again as it was all hands on deck for a few minutes, but the Fulham defence were admirably defiant in their work and after stopping the attack they managed to break superbly after keeping possession for a succession of passes ending in a Hyndman drive forward centrally before he coolly played in Woodrow one-on-one. Lincoln did well to shut off the space and Woodrow could only muster a shot at his legs.
With 70 minutes gone Reading were yet to create a real clear cut opening, be it through moving the ball around the box quickly, Fosu’s silky skills down the wing, or Ikpeazu pulling onto the smaller Richards which had failed to bear any fruit in the first half. There’s no doubt that there was pressure and tempo from the away side that on another day would have earned a victory, but this was a Fulham side that looked determined to hold onto their lead and their title.
As Reading did look to create they were forcing plenty of corners, which looked a good bet for a way back into the game, with the deliveries good and Rodak looking to punch at every opportunity. One particular corner was headed into the air and dropped agonisingly for Reading straight onto the bar before eventually being cleared.
Whilst Reading’s corners were keeping the whites on their toes, they themselves were having to stay vigilant at the back, Tankovic forcing another save out of Lincoln. Passley then drilled a shot wide before recovering to head out a dangerous cross for yet another Reading corner followed by a quick second, both of which were punched by Rodak.
Ikpeazu then won a controversial free kick for Tanner to have another chance at goal. This effort was better and was drilled towards the top corner, the crossbar yet again coming to Fulham’s aid, before the rebound was also cracked against the bar, eventually danger was averted with Reading heading over the top of the goal. Panic over for a short time at least, as Reading managed to carve somewhat of an opening before Rodak saved well with an outstretched hand.
A late challenge on Richards by the corner flag allowed some respite for Fulham who had just dropped the pace, though with barely 2 minutes left on the clock it looked as though they had just about come through the storm unscathed.
Another Fulham break, or rather a lone foray into the Reading half by Dembele allowed him to ensure he would at least be going home with the match ball, if by some miracle it wasn’t going to be joined by a winners medal. The striker faced 3 opponents, one who tripped him, but Dembele just about kept his footing and advantage was played. The defenders were backing off, and why not as they were still some distance from goal, though Dembele worked the ball to his right foot and drilled a low shot that crept past the keeper and in off the post.
FULHAM 3 (Dembele) READING 0
The 3 minutes of added time were subdued; a Reading corner was headed wide before hat-trick hero Dembele was replaced by Evans. A minute later the referee called an end to the game and confirmed Fulham as champions of the Barclays Under 18 Premier League.
FULL TIME: FULHAM 3 READING 0
FULHAM: Rodak; Passley, Donnelly, Arthurworrey, Richards; Roberts, Sambou, Hyndman, Tankovic; Woodrow, Dembele (Evans 90). Not used: Oberschmidt; Baba, Burgess, Della Verde
READING: Lincoln; Long, Griffin, Hyam, Cooper; Kuhl, Stacey, Kelly, Fosu; Tanner, Ikpeazu. Subs not used: Ward, Murombedzi, Taylor-Crossdale, Jefford, Owusu
And that was that, a year on and Fulham again reigned supreme. Though this Fulham and the Fulham that gained the title last year are few and far between. The line-up for last year’s final was as follows: Roberts; Brister, Grimmer, Pritchard, Kavanagh; Williams, Christensen, Minkwitz, Mesca; Altman, Woodrow. Looking at that line-up Fulham had a lot to do in replacing a core that we had come to admire. In fact only 3 players who players who were named in the squad were named in this year’s final, Woodrow starting up front yet again, with Sambou and Tankovic who were on the bench last year. There were also successful second chances for Passley (banned) and Arthurworrey (injured) who missed the final last year but made their mark this time around.
In terms of the 90 minutes, you can’t look any further than Moussa Dembele for man of the match, 3 goals in any final is rare let alone 3 goals that showed beautiful skill in the first, composure in the second, and pure determination in the third. Though in truth on the day there was very little between most players, Sambou breaking the play well, Arthurworrey and Donnelly shackling Ikpeazu and Tanner, both full backs bombing on and aiding attacks, the wingers for their guile in opening up space and creating chances, Woodrow for his strength and determination in the battle, Rodak for some fine saves and ability to cope under corners in their plentiful, Hyndman for his range of passing and ability to unlock the defence with one pass.
There must also be major credit to Steve Wigley, who carried on the youth philosophy in playing free flowing attacking football with a completely new side from the names we were used to hearing as well as allowing some of the younger players to step up and show what they had, Norman, Sheckleford, Smile, Redford, Leacock-McLeod.
Dembele’s final hat-trick (1 of 3 for him this season, 8 scored by Fulham players in total) left him 1 short of Tankovic’s 18 for the season (though Tankovic played 10 more games), with the Swede crowned top goal scorer.
Muamar Tankovic 18
Moussa Dembele 17
Cauley Woodrow 15
Signed from PSG in the Summer. Was their youth team’s top scorer.
Stats: 10 goals in 8 appearances (inc. 1 as sub), 2 hat tricks, 1 penalty
The “new” Moussa Dembele has added something we’ve not seen in a while for the under 18s: an out and out striker who goes the other way. Altman, Tankovic, Woodrow all like to come deep and get involved in the build-up whereas Dembele plays off the shoulder a lot more (as you can see with his first goal against Reading and in the way he won the penalty against Southampton, both coming from dodgy backpasses he was alive to).
It looks like Wigley is trying to get him more involved though (I remember his debut wen he’d literally just be doing sprints in behind defenders every time somebody had any kind of time to look for a forward pass) as he’s coming deep a bit more now, though he’s still a bit rusty here often giving up possession by trying to do something out of the ordinary instead of maybe doing a Walcott and laying it off then to spin in behind. I’m sure you’ve all seen his physique, he really is a handful but at the moment goes down a bit too easily for my liking.
His goals have been a bit of everything so far: tap in’s, good strong headers, a few lovely finishes from distance, so he seems pretty comfortable wherever it comes to him. He certainly looks to enjoy the goalscoring side more than the beautiful side like you’d say Tankovic or Altman love being involved with (it took a lot of persuading for Tankovic to get the penalty off him against Southampton).
I’m honestly not sure how far he can go. His all round game needs a lot of work but he’s very young and physically has it all (just needs to learn to use it). If he did learn to use it then he’d probably have a record as good as Carlton Cole did at youth level for simply being physically more developed than those around him.
I will say we’ve actually won every league game he’s played so he’s a bit of an omen right now (I could even go so far as saying we’ve won every game he’s played up front as he was shunted out wide for the FA Youth Cup loss to Arsenal). Remember that he was injured for a long period earlier on in the season so he’s still bedding in, but his English is pretty good and he must have a reasonable head on his shoulders to have moved from PSG where he’d probably have no future in their sugar daddy world.
With Wednesday’s humbling of the previously unbeaten Chelsea side, the first stage of the under 18’s season came to a close. And with the elite group not to be picked up until January, what better time to recap how the first stage has gone for Steve Wigley’s boys than right now.
Turn the clocks back to the 12th of May, and to the team that comprehensively defeated Blackburn to be crowned academy champions. A side then ignited by Mesca, Minkwitz, Williams, Altman, Kavanagh, Brister, Pritchard, Banya, Grimmer and Vigen as well as masterminded by Kit Symons. All those now ply their trade in the under 21 level of the game, though still intact were some of our defensive metal in Arthurworrey, Passley, O’Reilly, Sambou and leading the way up top Cauley Woodrow who this year took on the captaincy.
On reflection the season couldn’t have started any better, Steve Wigley coming in and grappling the philosophy of the club straight away with bright passing football against a Wolves side who had no answers to a young American who shone on debut with a hat-trick. Emerson Hyndman outscoring his captain on the day as the away side conceded 7. The new coach certainly had a thing for hat-tricks as both Dembele and Woodrow secured themselves a matchball each in the next two games which both produced 3 points, away to neighbours Crystal Palace and on Teeside against Middlesbrough.
Still riding on the crest of a wave and the fresh impetus of new partnerships being formed there was a win against Manchester City. Woodrow and Tankovic up top, the dogged Williams backed up by the peach of a left foot possessed by Jordan Evans down the left. The forceful and consistent Donnelly down the right with Patrick Roberts being given increasingly more exposure in front of him.
On the back of that and heading into October the cracks were beginning to show as form hit a rough patch and our unbeaten run was ended at the hands of Liverpool. Though we took the lead on the day and showed encouraging signs early on, Liverpool were indebted to Yalany Baio who dominated the rest of the day and dragged Liverpool to press high and force our passing game to be put to the test. On that day it unfortunately crumbled, with Liverpool having success down the right with Peterson and Sinclair against Jordan Evans who was still settling to a role he had never played previously to this season, having come to the club as an out and out winger. It could have been even more crushing had Oberschmidt not performed 3 world class saves.
That game signalled the start of a run of 4 matches without victory, though there’s no tougher place to go after a defeat than to Cobham and a Chelsea side that still had a 100% record. The tightest of games was settled by a last gasp own goal from Dean O’Halloran. The footballing gods were definitely with the blue half of SW6 that day and they weren’t about to let up. For the visit of Crystal Palace to Motspur Park was one of the darkest days of the season as of yet, and not the most glittering of debuts for Cameron Burgess. 1-0 up through Woodrow early on and with plenty of chances to double the lead squandered, the inevitable second half resurgence from the away side saw us buckle again and allow the visitors to leave with all 3 points. There was a definite change in attitudes from that point as we secured a good away point at Wolves, Woodrow from the spot and Evans with his first for the club, and followed that up with a comprehensive victory at Manchester City, 4-1 the score. Back to old ways and those hat-tricks flowing again, Woodrow this time as City were completely unravelled.
Things apparently come in three’s this season, with the side securing their first win in three games on the road, and coming home to gain maximum points on the third attempt at home, in one of the most one sided games you’ll see. Middlesbrough were on the wrong end of a thumping, six goals scored this time and at the tenth time of asking, a clean sheet. Tankovic bagged himself the hat-trick as Woodrow moved up to play in the under 21’s, no more than he deserved. Patrick Roberts managed to find the net twice and formally announce himself to domestic football after the delight of taking his bow on the international stage in the Victory Shield.
The one piece of cake that was missing from this side was an ugly win, they’d had thumping wins, disappointing defeats, unlucky defeats, hat-tricks galore, a clean sheet but that ugly win that eluded them was not far off. The visit to Melwood in November brought that. A bitterly cold day on a pitch that had been played on 24 hours previous by the under 21’s started with an early Sinclair tap-in. But Fulham were dogged and managed to get themselves level on half time after the linesman called for a foul inside the box. In fairness it was a ridiculous challenge brought about by a woeful pass and deserved a penalty, the referee for whatever reason did not see it that way. Tankovic coolly dispatched and the turnaround was on. The winner came late on after a second half of not so much by the way of beautiful football, Evans finding himself just outside the box and slotting home with his chocolate leg to take the spoils and secure 2nd place in the group and thus qualification to the Elite stage in the new year. Fair play to the team who stood strong against the onslaught that came after that goal, where a Williams nosebleed meant we were down to 10 men for more than 5 minutes, after the striker had bled through two shirts and only the third was deemed acceptable. We may have ultimately finished with 11 men, but we finished without one coach as Steve Wigley was sent to the “stands” for berating officials over the Williams events. The “stands” just happened to be behind a rail some 2 paces from the dugout and made no difference in reality whatsoever. I’ve certainly never seen that before in academy football and will take it as one of my personal highlights so far.
A 3 week break followed and allowed Moussa Dembele to get himself fit for the start of the onslaught upon the FA Youth Cup, which saw us lose to a strong and well-disciplined Burnley side in the Quarter Final last season. The 3 weeks was extended another 2 days as the original fixture was postponed due to a frozen pitch but the game was more than worth the wait. 10 goals, a sending off, penalties scored and saved, both teams making comebacks. Fulham 3-1 up and Boro down to 10 men having missed a penalty as well, pulled together to claw themselves back level in 90 minutes and even had enough in the tank to go 4-3 up in extra time. Cue Moussa Dembele bringing the scores level and our two top scorers eventually and finally putting the game in our favour once and for all, Woodrow and Tankovic scoring to finish 6-4 on the day. It must be admired the way that Fulham kept going even through Middlesbrough’s continued miraculous efforts, though allowing them to get to extra time in the first place is some cause for concern. At 3-1 up, a man up and Boro fielding two 15 year olds you should expect to hold a lead. Let’s put that down to the magic of the cup and some rustiness and look ahead to what is a tough match away at Arsenal in the next round.
To the final game of the initial group stage and a welcome chance for revenge against Chelsea, but maybe more importantly to become the first team to be victorious against the group winners. Again the game was tight and in the end we nicked the win on the back of a lovely Tankovic effort after the perpetual goalscorer Moussa Dembele had given us the lead. The game finished 2-1 with Fulham holding on well, especially in light of making many changes in this dead rubber of a match. Sheckleford and O’Halloran making their full debuts, with Norman, Leacock-McLeod and Redford getting their first taste of under 18 football from the bench.
That good win sealed what was a promising group stage performance, strong to start and finish but unable to push on from that promising start. The return of natural goalscorer Dembele will be of great encouragement for the elite stage especially now that Woodrow appears to be regularly involved with under 21 action. The Frenchman gives the side a burst of pace that completely changes the outlook and allows for us to play long into the channels when we’re under pressure a la the Liverpool game at home which we ultimately lost. Steve Wigley will have learned a lot about his side in these 6 months and there’s still one more face to learn when Noe Baba joins in the action next year after signing for the club.
The elite group stage will see us face regular foes in Chelsea and Crystal Palace, as well as Everton, Bolton, Reading, Southampton and Manchester United. It will prove to be a massive test to retain our title in the new format but these are sides that we’ve beaten before, and if we show consistency can beat again.
Let’s finish off the year with some stats from the first phase of proceedings :
Highest FFC Goalscorers : Cauley Woodrow (12 goals in 9 games), Muamar Tankovic (8 goals in 12 games)
Total Goals Scored : 38 (Only Reading scored more but they played 14 in their group)
Hat-tricks Scored : 5 in 12 games (Woodrow x2, Tankovic, Hyndman, Dembele)
Penalties : 6 penalties won, 6 scored
Fulham’s Under 18 side returned to Motspur Park for the first time since October for a match against winless Middlesbrough. The away side may have been buoyed however by the absence of Fulham top scorer Cauley Woodrow, with George Williams getting a chance up front, pairing Muamer Tankovic. Max Oberschmidt returned in goal with a defence of Donnelly (fresh from his outing for the Northern Ireland Under 21 side in the week), Arthurworrey (who skippered the side on the day), Burgess and Evans. In midfield the yin and yang pairing of Hyndman and Sambou were sandwiched by Della Verde and Roberts.
The slippery conditions paired with both teams eagerness meant the game took a while to find some flow and rhythm with Jones firing wide for Boro and Donnelly’s early foray ending with a sliced shot on his weaker left foot. It didn’t take much longer for Fulham to take the game by the scruff of the neck and they were the first to settle into some possession, resulting in a Della Verde strike that took a knock on the way through resulting in a corner. That in-swinging corner was met by the unmarked Tankovic to nod home from inside the six yard box, a rare headed goal for the Swede.
Fulham 1 Middlesbrough 0
From that point forward, Fulham completely dominated the ball and had Middlesbrough chasing shadows for the remainder, with Fulham’s tika-taka football leaving the Boro midfield 5 dazzled and resulting in huge gaps between striker Fewster and his teammates. That’s about all there is to say from a Middlesbrough point of view for a while.
Neat and patient work in the Boro third allowed chances for Williams, Donnelly and Tankovic before the latter latched onto a through ball from Hyndman drawing the keeper out. The striker chipped over the keeper but was caught on the follow through and a penalty was awarded. Tankovic himself stepped up in Woodrow’s absence and fired the spot kick into the bottom left corner, the keeper Montgomery diving the right way but in reality having no chance.
Fulham 2 Middlesbrough 0
Those two early goals forced Middlesbrough back into their shells and deeper into their own half, allowing Fulham ample time to play and create as they wished, with the away side only breaking with long high balls which caused Arthurworrey and Burgess no trouble. One break however, that wasn’t just lumped aimlessly forward resulted in a corner. Unfortunately for them when Fulham cleared via a neat diagonal ball from Burgess to Roberts, the young Englishman was allowed space to gather speed and dip inside his full back (who he had beaten 3 or 4 times already) and unleash a delightful curling effort into the far corner. A majestic finish
Fulham 3 Middlesbrough 0
There were further chances for Roberts who fired over with his right, Burgess who headed over from a corner and a bit of a scramble that Montgomery eventually managed to get within his grips. The away side were really hanging on towards the break, though had Morris controlled better from a rare break and diagonal ball, Oberschmidt could have found himself in no mans land and no longer in possession of a clean sheet. That summed up Boro’s attacks for the day, when they did get them the passes were either poor or the players were so isolated there was never any chance of a consolation.
HALF TIME : Fulham 3 Middlesbrough 0
Middlesbrough came out for the second half in an even more withdrawn 4-5-1 with Fewster cutting a lonely figure between our two giant centre backs. The deeper setting only encouraged Fulham to start playing their football higher and closer to the Boro box and it didn’t take long for the wall to crumble. Della Verde’s one-two with Tankovic, the return a lovely back-heel, successfully diverted a number of Boro players allowing Della Verde to slide through to Williams who nicked the ball in front of the oncoming keeper and was caught for Fulham’s second penalty on the day. Tankovic stepped up again and as was his confidence he chipped the ball down the middle to complete his hat-trick for the day.
Fulham 4 Middlesbrough 0
Della Verde and Williams were next to step up, the latter just pulling his left footed shot wide of the post after a neat Tankovic through ball. Sambou was then withdrawn, making way for Tom Richards who went to left mid pushing Della Verde inside and adding yet more attacking flair to that Fulham centre with Hyndman already opening up Boro and dictating our attacking dominance. Not long after Della Verde moved to the centre had he latched onto a Williams cut back to make it 5 – 0, finishing high into the far corner with his left foot.
Fulham 5 Middlesbrough 0
Fulham made the two remaining subs with a Tankovic effort after a neat turn sandwiched in-between, O’Reilly for Burgess and O’Halloran for Donnelly. O’Reilly slotted in at centre back, Richards dropped into right back with O’Halloran taking his place on the left wing.
These changes allowed Boro a chance to break up the home sides rhythm but the breaks they created continued to be broken up or wasted with the Fulham goal nearing. They then replaced O’Neill and McCarthy with Garrity and Armstrong. These changes did allow Fewster to drop into midfield and try to galvanise the team to salvage at least some pride, though his efforts were in vein and Fulham swept in a 6th. Not before Della Verde was booked for simulation, or more likely over enthusiasm in what could have been a third penalty for Fulham. From where I was standing it looked like the referee had done the away side a favour.
The sixth came again from Williams driving to the byline, this time he fired across for the onrushing Roberts to grab his second with a finish from close range.
Fulham 6 Middlesbrough 0
Williams himself couldn’t cap an energetic display with a goal as he steered one just wide from O’Halloran’s cross, the young lad maybe trying too hard to get that goal when given the chance in his favoured position. Tankovic just about had time to force a good save from Montgomery low down at his near post before the referee called time on an impressive display, albeit against a team bereft of quality.
On a day when most Fulham players sparkled, Tankovic just nicks man of the match for me from Hyndman. The American dictated the majority of our attacking play but the hat-trick hero takes the gong with his own build up play and energetic enthusiasm causing Boro problems on a day they’d like to forget.
Fulham : Oberschmidt; Donnelly (O’Halloran), Arthurworrey (c), Burgess (O’Reilly), Evans; Roberts, Sambou (Richards), Hyndman, Della Verde; Williams, Tankovic
not used : Norman (GK) who was in goal for the under 16’s
Middlesbrough : Montgomery; Coleby, Tinkler, Weledsi, Kitching; O’Neill (Garrity), Morris, Griffiths, Jones, McCarthy (Armstrong); Fewster
not used : Bland (GK)
A last congratulations to Chelsea under 18’s who are now uncatchable in the National Group 3 and remain the only unbeaten side at this level, though a visit to Motspur Park still awaits where Fulham may very well need something to continue on to the Elite Group.
Highlights of this match can be found here : http://www.fulhamfc.com/news/2012/november/19/u18s-boro-highlights