When Calum Chambers arrived at Craven Cottage in August of 2018, he seemed ideal stylistically for Slavisa Jokanovic’s football. As a leaner centre half, comfortable with the ball at his feet, Chambers seemed primed to be an asset in our possession based football. Chambers also came with a partnership with Alfie Mawson as the Swansea City centre half (who signed in the days prior) and the Arsenal loanee were the preferred centre back duo for Aidy Boothroyd. With Chambers and Mawson in the middle of the defence, England conceded just once in the three group games before being knocked out by the eventual winners Germany (shock incoming) on penalties. I recall this tournament well, and whilst England’s attacking ability was lacking, it was the performances of the two centre halves that had me ‘desperate’ for Swansea to sign Chambers that summer; completely unaware that I would see it at Fulham a year after. Fast forward another 12 months, Fulham only used the two as a centre back duo in two fixtures, Exeter at home in the League Cup before Alfie Mawson was substituted after 75 minutes and Watford at home before Alfie Mawson was substituted at half time.
While Alfie Mawson was out injured, Chambers found time at centre half harder to come by with Fulham’s return to Premier League football being littered with defensive frailty and Slavisa Jokanovic tinkered with Denis Odoi, Tim Ream and Maxime Le Marchand all potential partnerships. With Slavisa Jokanovic’s last game at Anfield came Calum Chambers’ first match in the midfield, In a post-season interview with the club website, Chambers said about the Jokanovic experiment, “He wanted me to get myself about, try and break up play, try and protect and stop the ball going into the strikers. It was a very defensive role I was playing.” Chambers also admitted to the impact Scott Parker had on his transition, even before the former Fulham captain was made head coach, “we do stuff after sessions, quick feet stuff, working on my body position and making sure I’m aware of what’s around me. I’ll ask him where I should be with and without the ball. If there are little things I’m unsure of, I’ll go and speak to him and get his advice.”
Chambers fairly seamless transition into midfield was surprising for what initially appeared to be a short term solution became a fixture of the side under the regimes of both Claudio Ranieri and Scott Parker. After continuing as a ‘water carrier’ for Ranieri, once Scott Parker was placed in charge, an attempt came to add another string to Chambers’ bow, “with Scotty it’s been more of a box-to-box role if you like, getting myself about and trying to help out with the forwards.” While Calum himself appears to still see himself as a central defender, his year at Fulham was beneficial, “now when I play centre-back I’ll appreciate more what the midfielders have to go through and it will help me realise what pass they want or where they want me to give them the ball, so it’s definitely been a great experience and added to my game.”
Whether Calum Chambers, at 24, can break through at Arsenal is another question. Newspaper reports suggest he may be used as bait for the Gunners to clinch a deal for Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha on top of him being the only of Arsenal’s six central defenders to go out on loan, whilst Rob Holding and Konstantinos Mavropanos remained in Unai Emery’s set up. Chambers’ performances as a makeshift central midfielder could attract Emery to trial him as a rotational player given Arsenal will look to compete on four fronts again. I do think Calum’s future (like most Englishmen of his age) is better playing consistent football and if the opportunity to work with a Roy Hodgson at Crystal Palace comes up, why not?
Whatever happens, Chambers is one of the front runners for Fulham’s Player of the Season voting and I’ll be personally surprised if he isn’t one of the top two. His consistency, work ethic and personal qualities have been a pleasure at Fulham and he seemed to have more ‘want’ than some players signed here permanently. I think I speak for a lot of Fulham supporters that wish Calum Chambers the best of luck in his future.
For Fulham, they’ll have to find a replacement for that anchor role in midfield. Kevin McDonald coming off of a season where he experienced the ruthlessness of football may be charged with returning to his former self in the Championship, or does Tony Khan dip into the transfer and find Scott Parker that style of player?
One of my favourite kind of pieces to write are those with a story, where you have a clear start, middle and end. In football, these are particularly satisfying especially when telling the tale of new signings or a player on excellent form playing at his peak ability. In April of 2017, I did one of these on Fulham captain Tom Cairney and it’s crazy to think of how the story has progressed in just a little over two years later. While the playoff attempt for Slavisa’s side that season was unsuccessful, Tom Cairney was made full-time captain for the ultimate success, becoming the first Fulham player to score at Wembley and lead the club back to the Premier League.
The return to the big time wasn’t quite what any of us had hoped. Tom Cairney, in particular, saw Slavisa Jokanovic, a coach he described as “giving me my best years” was sacked after a horrific start and was replaced by Claudio Ranieri, a coach who had no interests in utilising the strengths of the Fulham captain as Cairney spent a spell in and out of the side. Now under Scott Parker, a former team mate, Cairney has returned to the line up as more of a traditional no.10 in a 4231 and contributed his first goal of the season at home to Everton.
The improved mood around Craven Cottage was boosted further after the influential captain was announced to have signed an extension to his stay at Fulham. Whilst the realist will understand this new deal likely negates any relegation pay cuts and probably will make him one of the highest paid players in the Championship next season, the statement from both the club and player was much needed heading into a summer of uncertainty over the future of so many.
Fulham has become a home for the Scotland international, a club where he has played his best football, a club where he made his international debut, a club that gave him his first real taste at Premier League and a club where he became a father. And for Fulham, Tom Cairney became the identity of a footballing style, he may not be athletically blessed but Cairney is technically wonderful with the ability to thread through a perfect pass, dictate an entire game or bend in a beauty from outside the box. The feeling is very much mutual.
For Scott Parker, or whoever is in charge come July for pre-season, they will know that they will have one of the Championships best in midfield. Sure he’s likely being paid handsomely for Championship standards, but the cost to replace the impact of a Cairney would not be cheap and we should welcome the fact that he wants to stay through thick and thin.
This coming season, Cairney will likely become the first Fulham player to play on over 200 appearances since 2014 and could overtake the likes of Chris Coleman, Simon Davies, Damien Duff and Sean Davis en route what will hopefully be a quick return to the Premier League. Cairney stated he hopes to finish his career with Fulham at Craven Cottage and his current contract would take him up to the traditional 10-year testimonial game of which he’ll be 34 years old. While football is a business and things change from week-to-week let alone yearly, it’s a huge statement for Fulham FC and keeping players and people of this mould at the football club is something we should yearn for.
The Premier League is unforgiving for young players in general, the speed and physicality of modern football at the very top can often become a deer in the headlights effect for those early in their professional career. For Fulham’s Ryan Sessegnon, he came into the top division with a few years of flurrying media buzz as at 16 and 17 years old, the former left-back now winger has shone in the Sky Bet Championship playing with relative comfort. Two seasons in the second division has delivered the Roehampton born midfielder with two Team of the Year appearances, a Championship Player of the Season, a Championship Young Player of the Season and Championship Apprentice Award.
With awards and honours of this magnitude for a teenager understandably sees the football media discuss the vultures circling to prey on another talent from a smaller club. As Fulham FC were promoted with a reputation of swaggering, sexy football fronted by the future of the England national team all eyes were on South West London and Sessegnon to provide a pizazz outside of the top six. Alas, the season hasn’t quite gone how either party would have planned sees Fulham in a more vulnerable position to predators with young Ryan Sessegnon a prime feast.
The England under-21 international season has been fine, though many have may have bizarrely expected more of an 18-year-old in his first season of Premier League football, I believe that to play in a relegated team that has largely been poor alongside a spell on the sidelines as part of Ranieri’s exodus and still come up with contributing eight goals is strong. He has to get better physically, has to do a better job with retaining possession of the ball but while his goal opportunities are fewer and farther between, he’s had a nice season in that regard.
So what happens now? Ryan Sessegnon turns 19 years old in May, his current contract at Fulham Football Club is up in 2020 and he has scored 25 goals and by the last game against Newcastle at Craven Cottage, he’ll likely make his 120th appearance. As much as I would love to see the day that a young academy product with talent could break Johnny Haynes’ appearance record (658 which has stood strong since 1970) or Gordon Davies’ goal record (178 across two spells, the last of which in 1991); you must understand that modern football is much more financially fuelled with a top-heavy monopoly unlikely to be tested bar mass rule changes. There’s only so long a club like Fulham can reject millions of pounds and there’s only so long an individual (and his agent) can reject millions of pounds of personal wealth, European football, a greater chance of national recognition and more sponsorship offers.
Today’s Evening Standard (I’m writing on the 30th April 2019) is suggesting that Tottenham lead the way for our young winger with a £20m-£25m, a price tag which would represent Fulham’s biggest sale but a year removed from the figure discussed being £50m. As fans, we’ll likely never know what the true figure is but using £25m as a point, Fulham could keep Ryan Sessegnon for the remaining year of his contract knowing he can produce in the Championship and promotion would likely financially benefit the football club far greater. The risk you do play is not getting promoted and you lose the best player the academy has produced for a pittance in compensation should he move abroad. In this case, if Ryan Sessegnon was to remain in England, you can take the financial compensation to tribunal but may not receive the money for a while. In June 2015, Danny Ings left Burnley and moved to Liverpool following the expiration of his contract. The two clubs had a period of discussion but took the case to a tribunal which decided that Burnley receive £6.5m, £1.5m in performance-related extras, as well as 20% from the fee, should Liverpool sell – but this was not resolved until the following April.
Borussia Dortmund, Paris St Germain, Juventus, Manchester United, and Liverpool join Tottenham as premium destinations for Ryan Sessegnon and all have benefits for different reasons. From seeing success and playing with friends to playing with superstars via joining up with a coach with renowned expertise in giving opportunities to and developing young players. The humble boy from Roehampton has heard it all since he was 15 but now it feels real and true possibility. Upon signing his first contract with the club, Ryan was quoted as saying “Last season I got a lot of opportunities so I want to continue that. When you are young you just want to play as many games as you can.” Barring the disastrous Claudio Ranieri experiment, Ryan Sessegnon has continued to play on a weekly basis and having publicly backed former teammate Scott Parker to take the reigns on a permanent basis, maybe (just maybe) the opportunity to continue to play games, to win promotion again and to play under a coach he believes in and knows could convince him to stay. In an interview with Sky Sports, Ryan Sessegnon was coy about his future at the football club, “I’m still a Fulham player, contracted until 2020, So I’m still a Fulham player and in terms of that, that’s all I can say at the moment.”
This was never to be a piece on what I think will happen, or what Ryan should do or what the club will do. Simply laying out the possibilities of sell, keep or keep and extend. Ryan’s future is undoubtedly above Fulham and in an expected summer of an overhaul, the eyes on Ryan Sessegnon’s future will be most pressing as the boy with the world at his feet has an international and European future ahead of him. Is now the time? I could say ask Wilfried Zaha how his experience was jumping from Crystal Palace to Manchester and the response could easily be, “what about Dele Alli from MK Dons to Tottenham?” Whatever happens, I think Ryan has the support of all in the Fulham family in and out of the Motspur Park doors. He’s seen the support he has from the crowd both home and away and I’m speaking for us all, but I think if he chose to move on, we hope it’s too the right club that can treat him how he should be treated and harness that talent that has representing Fulham since under 9s football.
When an interim coach in charge of first-team affairs is losing fixtures, it’s understandably a lot easier to walk away than if results pick up, as does the atmosphere and performances around the football club. Even a club the size of Manchester United saw that impact as something that they could not reject after ‘loaned’ Ole Gunnar Solksjaer won over the board and was rewarded with the permanent position after winning losing just once in his first 13 fixtures and pushing what looked to be a lost season into Champions League contention. Following the permanent appointment of the Norwegian, United’s form has swung back the other and as I type, the Red Devils have lost five of their last seven matches (including exiting the Champions League).
So what relevance does this have to Fulham? Well, Scott Parker too was put in charge of first-team affairs on a basis of seeing it out to the end of the season for the club to reassess their future. Whilst Ole’s appointment sparked an immediate turn of dominant form, Fulham’s fixture list and quality of personnel saw it unlikely for Fulham to go on a similar run but other than a thoroughly disappointing display at Watford which confirmed relegation, Fulham have looked happier, more competitive and stronger. With a 2-0 home win against Everton and a 1-0 at Bournemouth, Scott Parker’s Fulham has now doubled their clean sheet tally and ensured that Parker will finish the season with more Premier League points than Slavisa Jokanovic, that man that took the Whites to the ‘promised land.’
One could also compare the Parker project to Darren Moore’s appointment at West Bromwich Albion the previous year. Moore was given the reigns after Tony Pulis and Alan Pardew were both let go in between a caretaker spell for Gary Megson. West Bromwich Albion was all but relegated with a 10 point gap and six matches. Wins over Manchester United and Tottenham including a point against Liverpool had West Brom hoping to keep their Premier League status alive until the final day but a Southampton win over Swansea saw the Baggies relegated whilst watching at home. Darren Moore was rewarded with the permanent job and took West Brom into a Championship campaign hoping for an immediate bounce back. Supported with the signings of Sam Johnstone and Kyle Bartley on permanent deals and the loan of Dwight Gayle (among others), Moore had the Baggies in the promotion chase all season but two losses against promotion rivals Sheffield United and Leeds United followed by a draw at home to the now relegated Ipswich Town saw Darren Moore bizarrely (from an outside perspective at least) sacked though it seems that West Bromwich Albion’s finances may not quite enjoy another year in the Championship, the lottery of the playoffs on the face of it was not good enough.
Back to Fulham, the players are openly behind Scott Parker, a good chunk of the squad were teammates of the former club captain but I think you may struggle to find a situation where the players were against the interim coach, especially following a horrible appointment of dinosaur Claudio. It’s hard not to harp back a few years and think of Kit Symons’ appointment following Felix Magath’s reign where the stands were desperate for the then under 23 coach to the first team role on a permanent basis following a strong run of form and very different feeling around the club. That experiment may be one that will worry the Khan’s, the Welshman lasted a little over a year and although through the recruitment of Mike Rigg and Kit Symons improved the playing staff slightly (in came Ryan Fredericks, Tim Ream and Tom Cairney) as well as overseeing the development of Marcus Bettinelli and Moussa Dembele, Fulham remained a team around the bottom of the division.
It would be very difficult to argue against the permanent appointment of Scott Parker being a gamble. The 2019/20 season will see Scott Parker enter his third year of professional coaching after a year with Tottenham’s under 18s and this rollercoaster at Fulham. Parker is currently supported by Matt Wells, a young but vastly experienced coach that was brought over from Tottenham where they worked together and also Stuart Gray, part of Jokanovic’s promotion backroom staff who probably should never have been allowed to leave. Gray has volumes of Football League experience, his stint in charge of Sheffield Wednesday saw them reach their highest finish in the Championship for six years as well as equal their single-season clean sheet record. Where Parker may lack experience on the training pitch, he’s being supported hugely in his backroom staff that he has been allowed to build up to this point.
Since Scott Parker has been placed in charge, we’ve some of the best individual performances from a few players this season. Franck Anguissa has strung together some impressive displays, Sergio Rico at Bournemouth made some impressive saves to ensure he kept a clean sheet and Ryan Sessegnon, playing off of the right, gave Nathan Ake nightmares. Even without Alfie Mawson, the eleven is playing more like a team making the back four feel as solid as it has all season. These last two victories have both been at 0-0 going into half time with an increase in performance once the sides came back out, that really displays a tactical nous and motivational aspect to the job that perhaps isn’t clear to the eye.
The talk of a Steve Clarke won’t go away and I do understand why the Khan’s would want to go in that direction given their previous experience with the aforementioned emotional Kit Symons experiment. I think the last two weeks have shown that Scott Parker can set up and motivate a team in a situation where the players have nothing to play for but pride. If supported with key players staying and adding to the squad, I do believe that Scott and his backroom staff can push for promotion. It is easy to say this when I am not under the pressure of every decision being analysed and criticised, even more so after a disastrous season.
Premier League safety is vastly unlikely for Fulham after a horrific year back at the top sparked by dreadful recruitment, management and coaching all intertwining to create a relegation displaying everything not to do once you reach the ‘big time.’
Scott Parker mentioned in the lead up to the SW6 Derby that he wanted to see Fulham play with a bit more pace in attack, that came with the return of Ryan Sessegnon to the starting line up and quicker attempt to the final third, whether that came with longer balls or general speed of play from back to front – we saw longer balls utilised more frequently than usual but Tom Cairney was excellent in finding space and collecting the ball between Jorginho and the Chelsea back line before sliding some lovely passes in behind for the aforementioned Sessegnon typically.
Though individual mistakes were still visible, Fulham’s general performance was full of fight and had a period where they absolutely had Chelsea on the ropes. Scott Parker has already gained the support of Tom Cairney who has called for the permanent appointment of the former Fulham captain, and whilst we must be wary to avoid the Kit Symons experiment, this feels different. I think Scott showed some tactical intelligence on his first game as Cairney exploited the space behind the Chelsea midfield and he flipped Ryan Sessegnon to the right who saw some joy against Italy international Emerson. If not for some Man of the Match winning calibre saves from Kepa Arrizabalaga then Scotty Parker could well have salvaged at least a point from his managerial debut.
Back to something different about this ‘players coach’ appointment surrounding a ‘we’ve got our Fulham back narrative.’ Scott Parker throughout his playing career always seemed to command a certain level of respect and that saw him named captain, a leader who lead by example, Parker has always had the potential to have an authority over a team. Having set about his coaching ‘badges’ (my least favourite term in football, badges don’t exist) whilst at Tottenham Hotspur, this moment is years in the making. The return of Stuart Gray brings an aura of legitimacy also as an experienced and excellent coach in his own right which will help Scott through the early days of his management career whether it lasts 9 more games at Fulham or not.
Scott Parker’s Fulham made a nice start on Sunday and according to the former England international, have set a standard for the remainder of the season “I shouldn’t expect anything less, the challenge for me now is that needs to stay and how is this going to happen, making sure that it’s a given every single week.” He understands the core principles that this football club should never reject ‘passing football and a family football club.’
Every coach has to start somewhere and for Scott Parker (and Fulham), familiarity and a mutual understanding philosophically is a solid ground to build upon.