For the second year in a row, Fulham hosted the Premeir Academy League Final at Craven Cottage. Last year’s group of talented youngsters that lost to Everton included Kerim Frei and Marcello Trotta, now of the First Team, and current skipper Ronnie Minkwitz, amongst others.
Having been unable to make it last year, with my father, I went along to Craven Cottage to watch this year’s final. Fulham were up against a strong Blackburn Rovers side, which had topped the likes of Liverpool and both Manchester clubs to win the Academy League Group C.
As fans of the First XI, the chance to go and watch this talented crop of youngsters was too good to pass up. By charging just £3 for entry, there was a good turnout, with somewhere around 1500 people attending the game. Credit to, for Danny Murphy, who had led the entire First Team Squad in requesting their morning training session be concluded in enough time for them to take their seats in the directors box at Craven Cottage to lend their support.
Motspur Park is fast becoming a production line for good young footballers. There have been six academy debuts in the First Team this season (Frei, Trotta, Etheridge, Kacaniklic, Donegan and Dalle Valle) and with Martin Jol’s stated desire to lower the average age of the squad, more can be expected next season. So, with our amateur scouting hats on, we sat down to watch what was a very entertaining match.
Fulham lined up playing 4-3-3, or rather, the 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 hybrid that has been adopted by the first team in recent weeks, with 3 central midfielders and two wide men, who can both sit back as midfielders, and attack as auxiliary forwards depending on the situation. It is intrinsic in successful clubs, that the youth teams play the same formation and football as the senior team. Whilst not quite the tika-taka football that Barcelona teach at their famous La Masia academy, manager Kit Symons has his team playing attractive fast-paced passing football that does not sit out of place with Martin Jol’s overall vision for the club.
Both teams started brightly, with highly touted £500,000 January signing, Ryan Williams, miskicking Fulham’s best early chance from twelve yards out. The lively Hugo Fernandez had the best of the early chances for Blackburn, but consistently failed to test Connor Roberts in the Fulham goal. Roberts incidentally was on the bench for Everton in last season’s final.
An all-international midfield of German, Ronnie Minkwitz, Dane, Lasse Vigen Christiansen and Israeli, Omri Altman, all looked very comfortable of the ball. Minkwitz, skipper of the team, played the Danny Murphy role at the centre of the three, linking play in an almost metronomic manner. Christiansen, playing in the Mahammadou Diarra role, played short and long passes in an intelligent and equal measure. While it was the exciting talent of Altman, playing the Moussa Dembele role of creative midfielder, who looked the most comfortable with the ball at his feet. Indeed, were it not for a good last ditch block, Altman would have scored in the second half.
Following their relegation to the Championship, Blackburn are likely to be considering several of their Under-18s for senior action sooner rather than later. In striker Curtis Haley and midfielder Raheem Hanley, they have two players to keep an eye out for. It was a mark of the fine job done by Fulham’s defence though, that these two and the ever-lively Fernandez were consistently kept at bay.
Another January signing, Jack Grimmer, fresh from first team action with Aberdeen in the Scottish Premier League, marshalled the defensive line with the experience of a wily veteran. His loud Scottish twang was audible in the stands as he constantly barked orders to right back Alex Brister. Josh Pritchard, playing centre back in the absence of injured Josh Passley, displayed some excellent passing range perhaps indicative of his usual positioning as a right back or midfielder. Irish left back Sean Kavanagh, one of the technically superior players on display, came the closest to opening the scoring in the first half, his deflected free kick ricocheting back of the outside of the post.
As the first half expired, left-winger, Buomesca Tue Na Banga, or “Mesca” as he is known, flashed a shot inches wide. It was then he, and right-winger Williams, along with centre forward Cauley Woodrow, who set about making the difference in the second half. Woodrow, who’s blond hair and intelligent combative style reminds you of a Pavel Pogrebnyak, looks a fine prospect. When watching young players, work ethic, technique and footballing intelligence are all good indicators of future success, and Woodrow has all three. It was no surprise then, that it was he who opened the scoring after an hour, latching onto a superb low cross from Mesca.
As the match wore on, Mesca and Williams swapped flanks and continued to exude confidence and class, whilst possessing an unflappable willingness to run at defenders. It doesn’t matter at what level you’re playing, fast, direct running will always scare defenders. Just look at the impact Kerim Frei has had on international players like Johan Djourou and Branislav Ivanovic this season.
Mesca has lightning strapped to his boots, his pace only slightly let down by a need to improve final ball quality. Williams on the other hand looks more polished. A traditional right-winger, he has both the pace and the technical ability to deliver a cross and pass, that alone, will make him a valuable commodity going forward.
It was Williams, from a delightful Mesca run and cross, that showed the composure to tap home the decisive second goal ten minutes from time. Another Australian, Corey Gameiro, then replaced Woodrow, and was almost immediately rewarded with a goal; only a goal line clearance from Blackburn captain Ryan Edwards denied him.
In the closing stages, Blackburn had midfielder John O’Sullivan sent off for a second bookable offense. A shame as O’Sullivan had been one of the few Blackburn players to stay committed to the end, when others heads had dropped. Indeed, Raheem Hanley was then lucky not to pick up his own second yellow card for a foul worse than O’Sullivan’s, but by then, referee Mr Nunn perhaps felt sympathy for the Northerners, who, having lost the FA Youth Cup Final to Chelsea on Wednesday, had endured a torrid week.
As the last few minutes elapsed, Fulham kept the ball, passing well and frustrating the forlorn visitors. Fulham were champions. The final whistle blew and it became official, Fulham were the best Under-18 side in the country and a trophy was coming to the Craven Cottage cabinet.
Jack Grimmer was the first to receive his medal, smiles beaming from nearly everyone inside the stadium. Nobody wore their smile with more pride than Minkwitz; leading your men to victory is the dream, and for Ronnie, it was one that had come to reality.
To see Fulham lift a trophy is something that we all dream of. When you consider the teams entering the Premier Academy League, and the value clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea, who we beat along the way, place in their youth development systems, this triumph really is one we should be proud of.
When watching youth football, it is normally the case that one or two players stick out from the crowd as being a cut above and ready for the next step. It is a mark of the job that Kit Symons has done, that one to eleven all looked impressive, both as individuals and as a team.
That being said, there are several members of this team that can expect to receive promotion come pre-season and into next year. Despite being perhaps the hardest position to emerge in as a youngster in a man’s game, central midfielder Minkwitz looks set to have a good future and learning off Danny Murphy will do him no harm. The same for Woodrow, who I’d send to Russian lessons once a week in order for him to learn directly from Pogrebnyak on the art of leading a forward line.
Wingers Mesca and Willams are both impressive, with Mesca even being handed a squad number this season. Of the two though, I’d wager Williams will be seen first. With Frei and Alex Kacaniklic both playing on the left, Mesca will need to improve his delivery to make serious inroads.
The player that I’d promote first though, is Jack Grimmer. At centre half he belied his age. He is listed as a midfielder and reminds me of Chris Baird. The ability to learn off the likes of Baird, Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland will undoubtedly lead to good things for the Scot, who will one day surely go on to represent his nation’s senior team.
Having picked out those five players, I am not serving to refuse promotion to the others. Altman and Christiansen in particular already have quality in abundance. Given the appropriate seasoning and experience, they will one day be lead to senior professional football, I hope, at Fulham.
Yesterday was a proud day for everyone at Fulham Football Club, and special mention to Fulham Deaf FC who also won their league. With several academy products likely to be involved at White Hart Lane this afternoon in the final Premeir League match of the season, the future is most definitely White.
Fulham Team: 1. Roberts, 2. Brister, 3. Kavanagh, 4. Christensen (15. Sambou 87 mins), 5. Grimmer, 6. Pritchard, 7. Williams (14. Banya 89 mins), 8. Minkwitz (c), 9. Woodrow (17. Gameiro 82 mins), 10. Altman, 11. Na Bangna
Subs: 14. Banya, 15. Sambou, 16. Tankovic, 17. Gameiro, 18. O’Reilly
Blackburn Team: 1. Dilo, 2. Wylie, 3. Beesley, 4. Hanley, 5. Edwards (c), 6. O’Connell, 7. Cotton (14. Cham 69 mins), 8. Lennahan (15. Boland 45 mins), 9. Haley, 10. O’Sullivan, 11. Fernandez (12. Payne 82 mins)
Subs: 12. Payne, 13. Urwin, 14. Cham, 15. Boland, 16. Mason