Adrion Pajaziti has praised Marco Silva for putting his faith in Fulham’s youngsters and is hoping to make further appearances after impressing on his debut at Birmingham last month.
The Kosovan under-21 midfielder has given a detailed interview to the Athletic’s Peter Rutzler this morning, explaining how Fulham’s new head coach has given him confidence after offering encouragement during his first few weeks in the job. The tidy central midfielder – long considered a potential star in Fulham’s academy – got his opportunity after impressing during summer matches between Fulham’s senior side and the under 23s during pre-season training at Motspur Park.
“We played a few games against the first team and I did quite well. I then trained a few times with them. It just happened quite quickly. When I found out I was starting, I was very excited. A bit nervous, but it was good nerves because it kept me on my toes. I was shocked to play the whole game. But I thought I played well. I was assured on the ball, and showed the gaffer that I can handle it at that level.
He just said to me, literally before we went out on the pitch, to ‘just go and enjoy yourself. I’ve seen you play a few times you’ve got great ability, you deserve it, just have fun’. It’s nice when you hear that, when the manager has faith in you. He didn’t overcomplicate it too much for me and just let me play my football. I really enjoyed the experience, especially playing in front of the Fulham fans for the first time.
My target is to keep training in the first team more regularly and to get used to the environment, because it’s very different to being in the reserve team or the under-18s,” he says. “And to get used to the manager’s philosophy. Hopefully I can get more minutes and kick on, and get into the first team as soon as possible really. But I know have to stay patient, and keep working hard.”
After flying over from Portugal to take over at Fulham, Marco Silva had to quarantine for a week in a central London hotel. The new head coach made it clear to his staff that they would make the most of the unusual circumstances to be clued up on all the resources that were soon to be at their disposal. Silva’s first request was for a detailed player profile on each member of the club’s category one academy. Having digested the assessments compiled by Steve Wigley, Huw Jennings, Colin Omogbehin and Dan Thomas, Silva then set up a series of inter-squad games to test some of the leading young talent when he was able to take training at Motspur Park.
The benefits of that quickly became apparent in Silva’s first few weeks in the job. Several of the club’s brightest young starlets quickly established themselves as players of real potential when joining in with first team training. The emergence of Fabio Carvalho into the starting number ten might not have been much of a surprise – especially considering his mature Premier League displays at the end of a forgettable season – but there’s no doubt that the way the attacking midfielder was considered integral to Silva’s plans in pre-season has helped him take the Championship by storm. The progress made by Tyrese Francois was such that the Australian midfielder was handed a league debut on the opening weekend of the season and he certainly didn’t look out of place.
The League Cup has become a breeding ground for the next generation in recent years. Whilst the youthful faces didn’t quite match the way Slavisa Jokanovic blooded several academy graduates at Leyton Orient five years ago, there were notable displays at St. Andrew’s last night from two regular stars in Fulham’s youth sides over the past couple of seasons. We know plenty about Jay Stansfield, whose outstanding first season after signing from Exeter saw him handed a first team debut by Scott Parker. The teenage striker’s development might have been hindered by a bad ankle fracture, but the young Stansfield has dealt with plenty of adversity in his life to recognise that waiting to make his mark on professional football was not the worst thing in the world. The quality of his finish against Birmingham – high into Neil Etheridge’s top corner – after making the most of a bit of space outside the box spoke to his almost limitless potential. It was an emotional moment, given that Jay’s father Adam was a lower-league striker of real repute before bowel cancer took him far too soon at the age of 31.
Stansfield’s striking first senior goal hogged the headlines, but quietly Kosovan midfielder Adrion Pajaziti had an efficient and composed debut at the heart of a youthful midfield – alongside Francois. The classy ball-player’s potential has been an open secret at the Fulham academy for some time, with the confidence that the club’s coaches had in his ability underlined by the fact that he made his debut for the under 18s as a fifteen year old in 2018. He captained that side last season, but his progression was so stark that Pajaziti, a perceptive passer and willing worker in the engine room, actually made more appearances for the under-23’s last term. What was so stark about his first senior start was the fact that he dealt so adeptly with any attempt to rough him up – always showing for the ball and keeping it moving with a modicum of fuss. Silva elevated Pajaziti into his starting line-up because of concerns about the number of minutes wracked up by Jean Michael Seri and Josh Onomah recently and he didn’t let anyone down.
The story of how Alistair Mackintosh tempted Huw Jennings to what he described as ‘London’s heritage club’ in 2009 and the construction of one of English football’s most successful academies has been well chronicled. There was a sense, however, over the past eighteen months that too many young talents were passing through the formative years of their footballing education unfulfilled. The pathway that had provided a route to senior football for the likes of Marcus Bettinelli, Ryan and Steven Sessegnon, Patrick Roberts, Harvey Elliott and Moussa Dembele had become blocked. Several under-23s players were disappointed by the fact that they were not given the senior game time they had been promised, with a few opting to leave.
That explains, at least in part, why Fulham restructured their academy set up over the summer. Jennings moved from academy director to become the club’s new head of football development and Omogbehin, who had previously coached the under 23s alongside Mark Pembridge, was given a new position as first team development coach, designed to help guide some of the best young talent towards the first team. The early signs – coupled with Silva’s enthusiastic embrace of the goal of getting more homegrown youngsters into his senior squad – are promising.
It should be said that these are challenging times for youth development. Plenty of clubs are cutting down on the funding of their academies or closing them altogether, dissuaded by both the post-Brexit complexities of scouting international talent and the all-too-familiar prospect of the vultures circling to sign their prized assets for a pittance. Jennings now holds responsibility for reshaping Fulham’s recruitment both domestically and overseas in a difficult post-pandemic environment, with the difficulties of signing up youngsters from further afield all too apparent but Fulham are not about to turn away from their academy. The club’s hierarchy believe it remains one of their biggest assets and, with a manager eager to give the cream of its crop regular exposure to senior football, the future looks very bright.
Marco Silva was delighted as Fulham booked a place in the third round of the League Cup at Birmingham tonight after he had made ten changes to his starting line-up.
The Portuguese head coach had underlined the fact that promotion to the Premier League is his highest priority in the build up to this fixture, but still wanted his fringe players to give him some selection posers at St. Andrew’s. They certainly did that – with teenage striker Jay Stansfield scoring a brilliant first goal for the club and American full back Antonee Robinson coming off the bench to make the tie safe in stoppage time.
Silva told his post-match press conference:
“It was our aim to come here and match Birmingham, to try to get the job done and go through in the competition. And that’s what we did. We made ten changes, we deserved the win as we were the best team on the pitch. We respect the competition, we respect our opponent, our attitude and commitment was there.
It was not the best performance for both teams, for sure, but creating a winning mentality is really important for us, winning with a clean sheet again is really important as well. Job done, and we prepare now for the next one.”
The Fulham boss was full of praise for eighteen year-old Stansfield, who had a full debut to remember.
“He deserved the chance. He’s been working with me since I arrived at this football club. In some pre-season games he did really well. He’s working really hard to get the chance, tonight he got it, and he did well. He scored a really good goal, and we know he has the capacity to do that. In those areas, if he has the chance to finalise the action, he is really strong. And he did it. In that moment we pressed well as our opponents built up, and we got the ball and finalised the action well.
Silva was also pleased with the performance of young midfielder Adrion Pajaziti, who did not look overawed by the occasion as he completed the full ninety minutes in his first Fulham appearance.
“Again, he’s a boy that deserved the chance. He’s not working every single day with us, but we did some games against the Under-23s and he’s a player that always did well. As you know, we have some problems in our midfield, some injuries in that zone. Tonight we played a fourth game in 11 days, which is many, many games, and the other two midfielders played 90 minutes in the last three games, Fabio was not with us as well, and of course we have to change the two midfielders in that position. They deserved the chance, and these games, doing things well, making mistakes, they will learn and they will grow as football players.”