The announcement this week of contract extensions for both George Williams and Cameron Burgess, the latter of whom immediately went on loan to Scottish side Ross County, comes as most welcome news for Fulham fans.
This season can so far be best described as a voyage of discovery. We are in a new league, with new players and a new manager against new opposition in new stadiums set amid a background of new, ever changing expectations. There have been some new lows and a few new highs (who knew a 3-3 draw at Rotherham could mean so much!). Are we getting promoted this season? No we’re not. Are Kit’s substitutions and tactics sometimes frustrating? Yes they are. Do we need to panic buy this month? Absolutely not.
Of course, should the right player who could help bring this club forward for the future become available, then of course we should move to bring them in. However, for the first transfer window in recent memory, it is not the potential incomings that are bothering me.
Fulham’s best hope of sustainably rebuilding and re-establishing ourselves a division up is to keep and develop our talented young players. In truth, expectations on most of these youngsters are so high, that even if half of them come close to reaching their full potential, we would have a side more than capable of reaching, and staying in the Premier League.
Our goal for now is staying in the Championship with enough time to spare so that the young players can get progressively more game time as the season comes to a close. At the moment, too many of the youngsters’ development is being restricted to 5 minutes off the substitutes bench because the senior players aren’t getting the job done and games can’t be risked.
The most fun time to watch Fulham is if we are winning and somehow we end up with Christensen, Woodrow, Roberts and Williams all on the pitch together. But we have a risk averse manager and are not, unfortunately, often in a position for such frivolity.
The problem though, and this is the perennial conundrum with player development, is that many of the young players simply aren’t ready to play 90 minutes week in week out. Yet in order to develop to a point where they are ready, they must play games. It is a catch 22 scenario. You see why Kit Symons, a manager who himself is learning his craft, is almost on a hiding to nothing?
Let’s look at the players individually; of the homegrown young players, the only ones who have really stepped up this season are Lasse Vigen Christensen, Marcus Bettinelli and Jack Grimmer. It is of no coincidence that these are the ones for whom game time has been the most consistent. None were in the side at the start of the season but all will be mainstays for years to come as long as they don’t leave. Christensen is the particular standout and the Danish Energizer Bunny’s form has seen him linked with Aston Villa in the tabloids. In years to come he shall surely play at a higher level but for now, the best place for him is being the first name on the Fulham team sheet.
Grimmer is a particularly interesting case study. In and around the squad under Martin Jol because of a dearth of right backs, he was sent out on loan last season to Port Vale where he excelled. This season he was sent out again, to League Two table toppers Shrewsbury Town, where he once more excelled. He was recalled to Fulham after goal machine Tim Hoogland suffered a hernia. After struggling to adapt in his first few games, Grimmer has noticeably stepped up in recent weeks. Each passing game is evidently having a positive effect on both his confidence and his abilities. The particularly adept way he marshalled Bakary Sako of Wolves in the FA Cup a fortnight ago was telling considering Sako had run riot on us back in August. If he continues at this rate, Jack will be in the Scotland squad before the year is out.
Why then, have these three particularly stepped up? It is not a matter of loan experience, for Christensen has none at all and he is our best player, Ross McCormack aside. Age, and more specifically, maturity, might hold the key. For George Williams, Patrick Roberts, Emerson Hyndman and Moussa Dembele, all of whom have shown glimpses of what their future holds, this season may have simply come a year too soon.
Williams and Roberts are both exceptional and exciting attacking talents. Williams has several full Wales caps to his name and Roberts is the golden child. Yet neither is quite ready to take the league by storm. When you consider they were playing in the FA Youth Cup less than a year ago, is that really surprising? When given starts, both players have bright spells but appear to go missing for long spells. As explosive attackers, their strengths are about taking defenders on. You simply cannot do that for 90 minutes.
Roberts in particular still has a lot to learn about the nuances of 90 minutes at senior level. Yet at the moment, his development is not going as fast as we’d like because he only really gets on for a few minutes at a time, if he’s lucky. Hyndman benefits from being a part of the US Youth National Team set up with additional games and training camps. Others, like Roberts, Williams and Dembele appear to need a more structured development plan. Not 90 minutes every week, but consistent and increasing game time off the bench.
For the young attackers, the maturity and composure required to develop into regular starters will only come with regular game time. However, this cannot be at the expense of the team whilst they are still developing. It is all very well and good learning when to shoot, but we must stay up, so some of those shots need to go in, hence the catch-22.
Dembele, for example, appears to have an issue with his composure. If he acts on instinct, and instinct alone, he is as lethal as he was at junior level [see the Derby cup defeat where he scored 2]. Yet if he has time to think, he has not yet played enough games and scored enough goals at this level to know the correct decision to make. He will only get this experience by playing games, something he is not, and will not do as our 4th choice centre forward.
We could send him on loan, but as Huw Jennings has said, not every player has the personality for a loan spell some are better suited to staying under the watchful eyes of their existing coaches. We also won’t send anyone on loan unless there is a realistic chance they will play regularly. With Fulham traditionally wanting (if not always successfully) to play a certain way, and with the young players bread in our youth sides to play passing football, would a loan in the rough ‘em tough ‘em lower leagues really do them any good? It is why defenders and goalkeepers often get loaned, but we have been hesitant to send out our creative players.
There are other players whose development is coming along nicely. Cauley Woodrow for example is progressing into a very good player. As the 3rd choice striker he has had semi regular game time this season to go with his loan at Southend last year. He has all the technical attributes to succeed, and given experience and some physical enhancements that come with age, strength and speed etc, he is well on course.
Others like Sean Kavanagh have been a pleasant surprise, and will only benefit from continued interaction with the first team. While others, such as Dan Burn, seem to have stagnated. In Burn’s case, his decline has allowed for Shaun Hutchinson to emerge out of the shadow of his early struggles. At centre back though, we still have Cameron Burgess and Liam Donnelly in the ranks, even if they’ve been lost in the system for the last few months.
There is no formula for successfully developing young players. Between Symons and academy director Huw Jennings, we have the staff in place to practice the alchemy required to strike the right balance with our youngsters, but it remains a crucial and fragile process. The loss of Steve Wigley to Nottingham Forest has clearly hindered the Academy, as has the loss of the majority of their players to the first team where we are seeing several years graduates all at once.
While most successful teams might carry one, two or even three young players in their regular squad, Fulham have gone Full Boyle and flooded the team with them. Coupled with the fact we have the likes of Alex Kacaniklic, Ryan Tunnicliffe, Shaun Hutchinson and Kostas Stafylidis, all of whom are still relatively inexperienced, no wonder there has been a heavy burden on the senior players.
So this January, instead of bringing in yet more new faces, I would like to see Fulham concentrate on doing whatever can be done to further progress the players we do have. Securing them on new contracts, like with Williams and Burgess, is the place to start. It both engenders confidence in the player and provides us with a level of security should the vultures begin to circle.
Our best hope long term is to keep this young squad together and to make sure they progress and develop. If we do, it will be a better investment than any signing could be.
Oh and can Chris David be allowed back in?
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.
Kavanagh hits 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.
Celebrating William's goal
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