Former Fulham Academy striker Marcello Trotta this week signed for Italian Serie A side Sassuolo. Whilst being pleased for Marcello and in some ways feeling vindicated having always been in the pro-Trotta camp, it’s hard not to look on with a touch of remorse at what might have been had he stayed at Fulham.
So it got me thinking, who else has left the academy under the cover of darkness only to go on and have their name in lights elsewhere? Who are the ones that got away?
The long and short of it is that there aren’t very many. As an fascinating long read article from the Guardian’s Barney Ronay illustrated this week, the life of a Premier League Academy graduate is often one of hardship, with a very small percentage actually making it to top level football. For every success story, there are countless more failures.
In truth, Fulham’s academy only began to resemble a genuine source of senior players following Huw Jennings arrival at Fulham in December 2008. Success was only beginning to be noticeable in 2011 when our Under 18s made the Barclays Premier Academy League Final for the first time. Many of the most promising Academy players developed under Jennings’ tenure are only now finding their opportunities in the senior game, be it at Fulham or elsewhere.
In the years before Jennings arrived at Motspur Park, Fulham’s academy was not the glittering Category 1 talent factory it is today (ok ever so slight over exaggeration), it was more of a hotchpotch of local ‘talent’ and random cherry picked foreigners as Fulham sought to keep up with the ever younger and ever geographically expanding Premier League talent arms race.
In looking into the ones that got away, I’m not talking about those that broke into the first team and quickly got sold for a profit. The tales of Chris Smalling, Patrick Roberts and Kerim Frei are well known. Who though are the gems that got away?
Now 23, Marcello Trotta was signed by Serie A side US Sassuolo this week for a reported fee of £2m from Avellino. The striker had been at Avellino, in Italy’s second tier, for a year having left Fulham quietly last January. Trotta had 8 goals and 5 assists in Serie B this season prompting Sassuolo to snap up the Italy Under 21 international with bigger clubs reported to be looking on as well. Trotta’s time at Fulham was defined by a lack of opportunities. Despite scoring 56 goals in the 4 and a half seasons he was in England across various competitions, a succession of Fulham managers refused to give him a chance. He performed well during three loan spells in the football league (at Wycombe and twice at Brentford) but never got his chance at Craven Cottage. He was a natural predator in front of goal and his continued rise through the ranks in his homeland will be closely watched by Fulham fans with perhaps the biggest sense of “what if” out of all the players on this list.
The diminutive left midfielder arrived at Fulham from Inter Milan in 2007 as one of the first wave of foreign prospects brought to the club. After signing a one year deal with Fulham in 2008 he left under the radar a year later. Following a move to Sicilian side Palermo and several loan spells, he earned a move to then Serie B side Sassuolo. He has subsequently built a solid foundation to his career at Sassuolo, having earnt promotion to Serie A with them. Now 24, he spent last season on loan at Bologna in Serie A before returning to Sassuolo this season where he’s been in and out of the side. Laribi arrived at Fulham at the same time as another Italian, Luca Moscatiello, who now plies his trade in the 4th tier of Swiss football.
Swedish forward Tankovic was the first high profile Fulham prospects to leave the club once we got relegated. He had several fleeting chances in the Fulham first team in our relegation season, most notably as a lone striker away at Manchester United, but he did not renew his contract and joined Dutch Eredivisie side AZ Alkmaar following our relegation. Tankovic enjoyed a large amount of game time in his first season in Holland but has found himself in and out the AZ side in his second season and has made only 10 league appearances this term. Tankovic’s lightweight frame and finesse style would not have suited the Championship but he remains a player remorseful eyes will track from SW6 as his career develops.
Forward Hoesen left Fulham in one of the more bizarre transfers in recent memory, signing for Dutch giants and well known talent factory Ajax straight from the Fulham reserves. What did they see that we didn’t? Having played in the Champions League for Ajax, Hoesen’s meteoric rise somewhat stalled when he was deemed surplus to requirements and loaned to Greek side PAOK. He now appears to have found his level, featuring 14 times this season for Dutch Eredivisie side FC Groningen.
Goalkeeper Etheridge’s time at Fulham will be remembered for two things; conceding the 2 goals that knocked us out the Europa League at home to OB Odense in his only first team appearance, and having the most twitter followers at the club owing to his superstardom in the Philippines, where he’s goalkeeper for the national team. Goalkeeper progression is a hard conundrum for many clubs and Etheridge fell on the wrong side of history at Fulham. After several loan spells he was released 18 months ago once he became too old to feature regularly for the Academy and U21 sides. Having spent last season at Oldham and Charlton, Etheridge was picked up by Walsall on a free transfer. In a move that now resembles a masterstroke, Etheridge is the first choice keeper for the Saddlers having kept 8 clean sheets this season in League One. He’s also only conceded 20 goals in 22 games. With goalkeepers typically improving with age, Etheridge, at age 25 would appear to have a very bright future ahead of him. Another goalkeeper from the Fulham academy making a name for himself is Wes Foderingham, now first choice at Scottish giants Rangers.
The story of Australian centre back Leijer is not so much that of “the one who got away” but rather “the one who got away and made a nice career for himself but it was still probably best for both parties that he left”. Having signed as a 21-year-old next big thing from Melbourne Victory, Leijer returned to Australia two years later having failed to make the grade in England. He went on to play more than 100 times in the Australian A-League and captained the Victory to A-League glory. He now plies his trade in China’s top division for Chongqing Lifan.
The final name on my list is not an academy player, nor someone who was ever a permanent Fulham player. Stefano Okaka Chuka spent the second half of Fulham’s Europa League Final season on loan at Craven Cottage from AS Roma. Having become known to Fulham fans after he scored for Roma against Fulham earlier in the season, Okaka played a sparing role as Fulham stumbled along to the end of the league season whilst eyes and minds were focussed on Thursday nights. He had raw skills but lacked the composure to make a real difference in front of goal. 5 years later and Okaka has matured into a very talented forward. Having left Roma, Okaka had spells at Parma, La Spezia and Sampdoria before a £2m move to RSC Anderlecht sought to revive his career in the summer. He’s gone on to make quite the impression in Belgium having scored 9 goals in 21 appearances so far this season, including the winner against Tottenham in the Europa League.
Juries Still Out
Three more on whom the jury is still out are Chris David, Jonathan Buatu and Omri Altman, who now play for Go Ahead Eagles (Dutch 1sttier), Waasland-Beveren (Belgian 1st tier) and Hapoel Tel Aviv (Israeli 1st tier) respectively. 22 year old Angola international centre back Buatu in particular is one player whom I expect will make the transition back to a top league at some point before too long. Chris David, he of the much potential and Premier League wonder goal, is a perfect example of what can go wrong. Many people, myself included, expected him to be one of the stars of our Championship campaign last season. However, after falling out with management he was loaned to former club FC Twente (for whom he ended up playing in the reserves) before being released last summer.
Part Two tomorrow will look at those players who maybe didn’t quite end up where they wanted.
Bit late on this one, but Stefano Okaka was featured in my local paper last week saying he’d be keen to extend his loan spell with Fulham. I imagine that clever equaliser against Wigan at the weekend won’t have done his hopes any harm at all, either.
At this stage I don’t know if there’s a possibility of extending my stay here, but I feel really good here and it certainly wouldn’t be a problem for me to stay. In fact, I’d like it very much, but we’ll just have to see how it goes.
It’s really up to the manager in terms of team selection, but my ambition will just be to do my best between now and the end of the season and hopefully get more opportunities to show what I can do. For me, it was a great opportunity to come here at 20 years of age and have the chance to open my mind to a different country and experience a different level of football.
It wasn’t a case of limited opportunities at Roma; I’ve already played for quite a while. This is just something that came up and I was interested in.
It’s very different from Italy. There, it’s more tactical and here it’s more physical and of course I like that side of it. But I like both styles.
All the action from Fulham’s much-needed win over Wigan is here.
I’m struck by the similarity between Okaka’s clever little near post flick and the backheeled winner on his last appearance for Roma before heading for London.
After three straight league defeats and with minds turning towards the Europa League, the World Cup and the prospect of a summer break, Fulham needed a victory and fast. It would prove a morale-booster ahead of that testing trip to Wolfsburg and halt a worrying slide down the table as the season draws to a close. Wigan needed the points, but for different reasons, as Roberto Martinez’s side are still in a relegation scrap.
On a surprisingly sunny afternoon at Craven Cottage, both sides would have taken a gritty victory. At half-time, it looked like Wigan’s game for the taking as the Latics slowly began to push a jaded home side back and took the lead through a Jason Scotland shot that Mark Schwarzer will feel he should have kept out. Fulham kept plugging away and were much improved in the second period. Substitute Stefano Okaka flicked home his first goal for the Whites just after the break and a powerful Brede Hangeland header put Fulham in front. And that’s the way it stayed, despite some late Wigan pressure prompted by the introduction of the lively Victor Moses.
Roy Hodgson avoided the temptation to rotate his squad too vigorously, only opting to rest Bobby Zamora from the side that downed the German champions in Thursday’s first leg. David Elm got a start up front but the Swede was easily nullified by the Wigan defence and Fulham carried a much greater threat when Okaka replaced him for the second period. Hodgson wouldn’t have been too impressed by the way Fulham faded after a lively opening, when Chris Kirkland was forced into a smart double save. Zoltan Gera’s diving header drew a good block but Elm should have done better with the follow-up.
The home fans weren’t too happy with refereeing of Mark Clattenburg, though television replays showed that Gera’s early claim for a penalty was the result of the Hungarian tripping over his own feet rather than a defender’s. Wigan gradually enjoyed more of the possession and posed real problems for the Fulham defence. Charles N’Zogbia had their first chance, his low drive palmed away by Schwarzer, and Paul Scharner saw a clever chip – after Schwarzer completely misjudged a high ball – headed off the line by Hangeland. Wigan’s increasing confidence was illustrated by an ambitious long-range drive from Maynor Figueroa that Schwarzer had to turn over.
The Fulham goalkeeper had an uncharacteristically off-day and Wigan were the grateful beneficiaries just after the half hour. The Australian drove a clearance straight into touch giving them possession. Former Chelsea full-back Mario Melchiot sent over a deep cross that Marcelo Moreno headed back into Scotland’s path and the former Swansea striker surprised Schwarzer at his near post with a low shot. Scotland’s first Premier League goal gave Wigan a precious lead.
Pitiful defending has often undermined some excellent approach play in the final third from Martinez’s men this season and so it proved in the second half. Scharner, who had earlier been cautioned after hauling down Elm having surrendered possession in a dangerous position, was robbed by the maurauding Zoltan Gera. The Hungarian’s low cross was effortlessly lifted over a helpless Kirkland by Okaka for the Italian’s first league goal since arriving on loan from Roma in January.
Scotland had a shot blocked at source shortly afterwards but Fulham were now asking the questions. They went in front from a Damien Duff corner after Wigan left Hangeland inexplicably unmarked to thump a header in off the post. The tall Norwegian, sometimes criticised for a failure to score as many goals as a man of his height perhaps should from set-plays, could hardly pass up such a straightforward opportunity.
Wigan did stage a late rally that had Fulham clinging on a little but they barely troubled Schwarzer. Moses headed over the bar from a corner and Moreno’s long-range volley floated harmlessly into the Hammersmith End. Substitutes Scott Sinclair and Ben Watson poured forward in search of an equaliser but it was Fulham who looked more likely to score with Clint Dempsey denied by the sliding Titus Bramble as the home crowd roared for a penalty yet again.
It wasn’t the prettiest performance, but Hodgson will appreciate his side’s character in grinding this one out.
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Davies, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy (Baird 88), Duff, Dempsey; Gera; Elm (Okaka 45, Nevland 88). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Shorey, Greening.
GOALS: Okaka (47), Hangeland (58).
WIGAN ATHLETIC (4-5-1): Kirkland; Melchiot, Figueroa, Bramble, Scharner; Diame, McCarthy, N’Zogbia (Watson 85), Scotland (Moses 61), Rodallega; Moreno (Sinclair 85). Subs (not used): Stojkovic, Gohouri, Amaya, Gomez.
BOOKED: Scharner, Figueroa.
GOAL: Scotland (34).
REFEREE: Mark Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).
My take on the Fulham reserve player performances from tonights match against Birmingham:
Etheridge: Good saves when called upon, commanded his area well, and distribution was excellent. Impressed me when I last saw him against Kingstonian in a pre-season game some eighteen months ago; delighted to see that he has progressed further.
Stoor: Showed keenness to go forward and to attack, but looked uncomfortable when players were running at him. Made some bizarre (and very poor) decisions in dangerous areas. I can see why Hodgson prefers to play Kelly. Was really hoping that Stoor would impress me tonight. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.
Toure: Certainly has all the raw attributes to be a good central defender. He’s a big lad, with a fair amount of pace. Good in the air, made some good tackles too, including one superb last ditch sliding tackle to deny Phillips. Apparently this was only his second start for the Reserves. Very impressive, certainly more so than Pierre when I saw him against Arsenal in November.
Briggs: Just class. Good in the air and on the ground; quick; shepherded the ball out of play well. Excellent on the ball – not only good distribution, but a couple of runs upfield too, one of which forced a smart save from Doyle. There was a man in the stands in a Chelsea tracksuit. I just hope he wasn’t there to try and poach Briggs. We won’t miss Smalling too much if Briggs continues his development.
Marsh-Brown: Started off at left-back, and didn’t really look too comfortable there. Much too right-footed to link up effectively with Buchtmann on the flank. Looked a lot better when switched to the right wing in the second half. Great pace and dribbling ability, frightening the life out of the Birmingham defence. I definitely think this boy has a future, but must be played on the right. Unless he was played there to try and improve his left-foot (which failed anyway, as he barely used it except for standing on).
Brown: Worked hard, didn’t waste the ball, and looked to attack. Reminds me a fair bit of a slower version of Riise actually, with the only other difference being that Riise like to go wide and cross the ball, whilst Brown likes to cut into more central areas and shoot. Frequently swapped positions with Hoesen and played behind Okaka, and showed some nice touches. I don’t think he can play CM in the first team (to the level of Murphy or even Greening), and unfortunately he’s no better than what we have in the wide areas. Hope he makes it though.
Dikagcoi: Really impressed me tonight. Won the ball well, and showed some of his expansive passing range with some cracking passes to the front two and the wide men, and also recycled the ball well in tighter areas. Still prone to making needless gaffes though, and sometimes chooses a very silly option in dangerous areas, but could certainly make a difference in our first team. Would very much like to see what he can do alongside Murphy. Has all the physical attributes of Etuhu, but with Baird’s passing.
[Replaced on the hour mark by left back Alex Smith, who looked more comfortable there than Marsh-Brown, and dealt very well with the impressive Nathan Redmond. Smith went to LB, Marsh-Brown to RM, and Brown to LM.]
Milsom: This boy really impresses me every time I see him play. Excellent pressuring in midfield, won the ball well, and distributed it nicely. Have now seen him play at left-back, left-wing and centre-midfield, and he looks comfortable all over the park. Such a shame he suffered such a nasty injury after he made his debut at Old Trafford last season, as Hodgson said he was heavily knocking on the first-team door at the time. Next year is a big one for him, but I think he can be a valuable and versatile squad member.
Buchtmann: Certainly has talent. Nippy player, with excellent pace and dribbling skills. Reminds me of a young Damien Duff at times actually. Likes to cut into central areas as well. With both him and Brown fond of this, I wonder if there would be benefit in playing them on their “reverse flanks”, much in the way that Duff and Dempsey are utilised in the first team. If we got him as cheaply as reported, we got one hell of a bargain. Less effective when moved to CM after the departure of Dikagcoi.
Hoesen: Quick and certainly has some excellent ball skills. One particular highlight was when Hoesen nutmegged two Birmingham players in succession, in the space of about three seconds. Composed finish. Replaced soon after Dikagcoi by the equally rapid Stefan Payne, who closed down defenders well, but other than one snapshot, didn’t really have any chances.
Okaka: A class above everybody else on the pitch. Certainly the strongest. Shrugged tacklers away, so difficult to dispossess. Equally adept at running off the shoulder of the last defender as he is dropping deep and linking up play. Looks more comfortable than he did at the start of his spell – whether that’s to do with Hodgson’s training or simply settling into a foreign culture, he’s clearly improved. Would like to see him get more game time with the first team in the future.