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Why New Contracts and Player Development Trump Transfers at Fulham this January

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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?

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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?

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Fulham’s Roadmap to Regeneration: Part III – Promoting the Youth

Round Three on the Roadmap to Regeneration is by far the most exciting one for Fulham Football Club and its fans. Having first determined exactly who will be making decisions and followed that up by deciding which of the first team should be let go, the next step will be to decide which of the club’s talented young players are to be promoted to regular first team duty.

Read Fulham’s Roadmap to Regeration: Part I – The Future of The Boardroom.

Read Fulham’s Roadmap to Regeration: Part II – The First Team: Going, Going Gone.

Through relegation Fulham now have an unexpected opportunity to take what has been created at academy level and develop something great. Instead of muddling year-to-year survival in the Premier League where out young players either got their opportunities to develop elsewhere or not at all, we are now in a situation where to not give them their opportunity would be tantamount to stupidity.

Fulham must build upon the wealth of talent that has been amassed at youth level. By ridding the squad of the obstructing deadwood at senior level, Fulham have the opportunity to unleash what is potentially the most talented crop of young players the club has ever seen.

Of course, it is easy to get carried away when discussing the Fulham academy. Long starved of home-grown success, we have been blessed with a burgeoning academy in recent years. The last four seasons have seen Fulham reach the Final of the Under-18 Premier League three times, winning it twice and then followed that up this past season by reaching the final of the FA Youth Cup for the first time ever, narrowly missing out on the title after to Chelsea 7-6 on aggregate.

Such sustained success at youth level can raise expectations amongst fans to an almost unhealthy level. Whilst relegation will mean many of the players listed below do get regular game opportunities, we as fans must remember they are young professionals, learning their craft and continuing their development. They will make mistakes, but by giving them a chance, some of them could become great.

We have more youth players seemingly involved in their national team set ups than at any time in the past and had double digit first team debuts last season. Huw Jennings and Malcolm Elias have done an exemplary job in building the academy from a virtual standing start, while the coaching of the now departed Steve Wigley and Under-21 boss Kit Symons has proven exemplary.

Trophy success or near success is all well and good, but the role of a flourishing academy is principally to provide players who can eventually feature for the first team. We have at our disposal a set of young players with tenacity and ferocious hunger to succeed that was sadly lacking from many of our so-called experienced professionals last season.

Cautionary footnote aside, this really is a fascinating and promising once in a generation wave of youth promotions in prospect. Here is a selection of our youth players who are likely to and deserve a chance in or around the first team next season.

Dan Burn

At 22, centre back Burn is no stranger to first team football. A successful season at League One with Yeovil, which resulted in promotion in 2013, was followed with a six-month spell at Birmingham City for the first half last season. Having made 28 appearances for Lee Clark’s side, the defender was called back to Fulham by then manager Rene Meulensteen in January. Burn proceeded to make his debut against Norwich in the FA Cup two days later and went on to make 10 further First Team appearances, mostly under Meulensteen. The natural heir to Brede Hangeland at the left side of our centre half pairing, Burn’s aerial prowess is no secret, but he has shown deft touch and a propensity to get forward on occasion. Positional awareness and turning circle must continue to improve but regardless, Burn is a natural fit to start every game in the Championship and is on his way to becoming a classy top-flight defender.

Fulham First Team Appearances: 11

Likely role next season: Starting XI

Alex Kacaniklic

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Swedish International Kacaniklic is not a youngster who can technically be promoted to the first team, but he can be used a lot better. At 22, he has somewhat been a victim of his own success, in that he broke into the team as a 19-year old alongside Kerim Frei and never quite nailed down a starting spot from the outset. Most often used as a left midfielder, Kacaniklic’s main problem is his delivery. He has a superb ability to get into the right position but his final ball, both in decision and execution has so often lacked the necessary quality. In the cutthroat world of Premier League football this has seen him yo-yoing in and out of the side. He made 29 appearances in all competitions last season. Having succeeded on loan at Watford as a teenager, Kacaniklic has already proven a good Championship operator, and should he stay in Fulham’s colours he could and should be a key part of a promotion challenging side next season.

Fulham First Team Appearances: 56

Likely role next season: Starting XI or sold.

Cauley Woodrow

The success story of the season just gone, 19-year old Woodrow has enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom in the last six months. Having spearheaded several of the successful Under-18 campaigns, including captaining 2013’s victorious team, Cauley was rewarded with a loan spell at League Two side Southend United last autumn. In his time at Roots Hall the technical striker made 19 appearances but flattered to deceive with a meager return of just 2 goals. An example of statistics lying, Woodrow was technically superior to those around him, with the lack of goals a reflection on his difference in style to the less polished lower division. Having returned to Motspur Park after dropping out of the Southend side, Felix Magath began involving the Englishman in first team training. Woodrow would go on to make six first team appearances in the run in, including scoring his first senior Fulham goal in front of the Hammersmith End on the final day. Such is Cauley’s obvious talent, he has been rewarded with a call up to the England U21s alongside several big names up front including Saido Berahino and Danny ings. Expect Woodrow to have a big role in our future, his technical ability and first touch put the likes of Darren Bent to shame. Regular football should help enhance his ability to become a regular goalscorer like he was at youth level. He is best with his back to goal and should play with a strike partner and not as a lone frontman.

Fulham First Team Appearances: 6

Likely role next season: Starting XI

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Patrick Roberts

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Ask anyone around the club for the past few years who the most exciting prospect in the entire academy has been and they have all unanimously said Patrick Roberts. At 17, the winger has just turned in some “remember the name” type performances for the England U17 side as they won the European Championships. A local south west Londoner, Roberts is thankfully under contract at Fulham having signed professional terms until 2016 during last season. His potential is limitless and his dynamic running style compares favourably to two other Huw Jennings discoveries, Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale. Roberts scored 14 goals in 26 appearances for the Under 18s including a spectacular goal at Stamford Bridge in the Youth Cup Final. Whilst he will eventually ply his trade at the very highest level, he must have the right environment to ensure he develops into that player. A season of regular first team football in the second tier as a 17/18 year old would be a great place to start. Should he start there, Robert’s talent is such that he is unlikely to be sat on the bench for long.

Fulham First Team Appearances: 2

Likely role next season: Squad but progressed to starting XI before Christmas.

Marcello Trotta

The marmite man of our academy, Trotta was one of the first wave of young players to make it to senior football from the current crop. However, Fulham fans remain divided on whether the Italian will succeed at first team level. After two seasons on loan in League One at now Championship rivals Brentford, Trotta has proved an adept goal poacher, something Fulham have not had in abundance of late. At 21, some fans have been too quick and keen to write off Trotta and with Brentford keen to keep the Italian U21 squad member who scored 13 goals in League One last term it remains to be seen if he stays at Fulham, and after two and half seasons out on loan he may not actually know his way round Motspur Park. Word from Griffin Park is he has shown considerable development in his time there and he may well have earned his chance to finally show Craven Cottage what he can do.

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Fulham First Team Appearances: 1

Likely role next season: First Team Squad / Leaves for Brentford on a permanent deal

Moussa Dembele

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At 17, Frenchman Dembele is the youngest of our striking trio and by far the most dynamic. Convinced to leave hometown club Paris Saint Germain as a 16-year old, Dembele made his Premier League debut at home to Everton in March and arguably should have scored in that game. Having signed a new deal during last season to ensure he remains at the club for now, Dembele, along with Roberts, has been the star of the Under-18 side. A staggering 23 goals in 17 Under-18 appearances was complemented by a further 8 goals in 9 games for the Under-21s. He has the confidence of a future superstar, and missed panenka in the Youth Cup aside, everything he tries usually comes off. He will be a star and hopefully some of his senior career will be in the white of Fulham.

Fulham First Team Appearances: 3

Likely role next season: If he isn’t poached, First Team Squad and starter by January

Jack Grimmer

20-year old Scottish defender Grimmer is a player who’s shown signs of a first team future ever since he arrived from Aberdeen in January 2012. A versatile defender who can play at either centre or right back, Grimmer has developed into a senior footballer this season. His 13-appearance loan spell at Mickey Adams-managed Port Vale showed that Grimmer is already a cut above League One level. Though he’s likely to develop into a top level centre back, it is probably at right back that Grimmer gets his shot in the first team next season. Whoever wins the pre-season battle out of Grimmer and Josh Passley may end up securing the spot as their own for next season. It also won’t be long before Gordron Strachan picks up his phone for the Scottish national team.

Fulham First Team Appearances: 0

Likely role next season: Starting XI, albeit maybe not straightaway

Lasse Vigen Christensen

19-year old Dane Lasse Vigen Christensen arrived in SW6 at the same time as Grimmer in January 2012. An example of good youth recruitment, Christensen came to Fulham from little heralded FC Midtjytlland in his homeland. A classy ball playing central midfielder, Christensen made his first team debut this season and captained the Under-21s on a regular basis. He recently signed a contract until 2017 showing the club has faith in him. Had we not been relegated, he would likely have been loaned out to the Championship, so our demise may well have removed the need for a loan spell elsewhere. He is now a fixture of the Denmark Under-21 squad and is likely to continue his development into 2015 for both club and country.

Fulham First Team Appearances: 2

Likely role next season: First Team Squad

Chris David

Dutch midfielder David was one of the players you’d have thought might have left after this season in search of opportunity, however, his superb cameo and spectacular goal on the final day showed he has the talent to force himself into Felix Magath’s plans. A cultured midfielder who can play wide, in the middle or as a support striker, the coming season should provide him his chance. The key with older academy players like David will be playing games, at 21 time is not on his side development wise, but on raw talent alone, the hour showing against Crystal Palace proved he deserves a shot to mix it with the pros. Unlike David, Mesca is a midfielder who has lost his apparent First Team spot. Having made his debut under Jol at Stamford Bridge in the autumn he endured a disappointing loan spell at Crewe. A player tipped for great things, injuries have slowed his progress and it remains to be seen if he can become the player some had hoped.

Fulham First Team Appearances: 3

Likely role next season: First Team Squad, could progress to regular starter.

Liam Donnelly

Under-18s captain Donnelly is an intriguing prospect at centre back. At 18, he is probably several years from becoming a first team regular, but his calm and intelligent play at the back, shown whilst he was an ever present in the FA Youth Cup run, could see him rise through the ranks faster than most. His talent has been recognized with a call up to the Senior Northern Ireland squad for their end-of-season matches in South America where he could line up alongside former Fulham men Aaron Hughes (to whom his playing style is not dissimilar) and Chris Baird. Centre back partner for the Under-18s Cameron Burgess also looks to have a bright future and both could be loaned out to League One level to gain experience this season.

Fulham First Team Appearances: 0

Likely role next season: Loan to League One

Stephen Arthurworry

Completing the roundup of centre backs is the imposing figure of 19-year old man-mountain Stephen Arthurworry. Like his former youth team partner at the back Grimmer, Arthurworry has spent time learning his trade on loan in League One this past season. 17 appearances for a porous Tranmere defense will have provided great experience for the defender who already has the physical attributes to forge a career in the football league. As a local product of the Coombe School project, there will be a lot of proud faces if and when Arthurworry makes his first team bow, but that may not be just yet. Some more seasoning on loan would serve him well, however, injuries and transfers may predicate otherwise. He is technically out of contract this summer but it appears the club has offered him a new deal. Other defenders who may see action professionally next season could include left back Tom Richards who reportedly impressed on loan at AFC Wimbledon and Irishman Sean Kavanagh who impressed as the left back in the two Under-18 winning league sides of 2012 and 2013.

Fulham First Team Appearances: 0

Likely role next season: Loaned out to lower Championship or League One

Ryan Williams

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A player not considered by many Fulham fans as one to have a significant first team impact, Williams’ impressive development whilst on loan at Oxford United has snuck somewhat under the radar. Having just signed a two year contract extension, Williams is obviously highly rated by the powers that be and looks like being one of the major benefactors of our relegation. The 20-year old Australian winger played 47 times for League Two Oxford last season and chipped in with a tidy return of 8 goals (not bad when you consider Steve Sidwell top scored with 8 for the First Team). I suspect Williams will get his opportunity to stake a claim for a First Team spot in pre-season, though much may depend on whether Ashkan Dejagah stays at the club and Pat Roberts development.

Fulham First Team Appearances: 0

Likely role next season: Potential to become regular First Team squad member

George Williams

By virtue of being named in Felix Magath’s final Premier League squad of the season, 18-year old Wales Under-21 international Williams deserves a mention on this list. Having only really broken into the Under-18s this season following his arrival from MK Dons (where he scored a senior FA Cup goal aged 16), Williams’ progression is somewhat remarkable. An impressive display for Wales against England U21s last week on the left wing highlighted his potential. After 13 goals in 29 Under-18 appearances, a loan to get some senior experience is probably the first port of call but don’t be surprised to see Williams with the First Team before the season’s end. The two other young wingers to watch are Frenchman Ange-Freddy Plumain, 19, who made an impressive first team debut in the FA Cup at Sheffield United, and Larnell Cole, 21, who arrived to much fanfare from Manchester United under Rene Meulensteen, only to have injury halt any progress he was making whilst on loan at MK Dons.

Fulham First Team Appearances: 0

Likely role next season: Start on loan with a view to becoming a regular squad member.

Ryan Tunnicliffe

Versatile midfielder Tunnicliffe arrived at Motspur Park along with Larnell Cole in the dying hours of transfer deadline day in January. Signed under the guidance of former coach Rene Meulensteen, Tunnicliffe saw his career prospects plummet once the Dutchman went all Kevin Keegan on Sky Sports News after Felix Magath’s appointment. After making 26 appearances in central midfield for Ipswich in the first half of the season, Tunnicliffe went on play only 8 more all season, 3 for Fulham and 5 in an aborted loan spell at Wigan. Tunnicliffe is Championship ready and has the engine and versatility to fit nicely into Felix Magath’s plans. Whether he has the quality to nail down a starting spot remains to be seen but we could no doubt see the 21-year old at any number of positions during the long season to come.

Fulham First Team Appearances: 3

Likely role next season: First Team Squad

The Rest

The above list is far from exhaustive, and it is often impossible to tell who will or won’t make it. However, the promise of the Fulham youth set up is such that potential exists in abandon. Players not mentioned above include our junior goalkeeping union comprising Marcus Bettinelli, who enjoyed a successful season on loan at Accrington Stanley, Jesse Joronen, a full international with Finland, and young Slovakian Marek Rodak all of whom look to have professional careers ahead of them.

Another player who will hopefully go on to have a bright future in SW6 is 18-year old American central midfielder Emerson Hyndman. The upcoming season may be one year too soon for Hyndman to break into the first team. As a creative ball playing central midfielder, Hydnman doesn’t yet have the size required to play regularly in the centre of the park at senior level, but his talent will undoubtedly get him there sooner rather than later. Another young midfielder, Soloman Sambou is also likely to require more time and experience before securing a first team berth. English winger Lyle Della-Verde and powerful Belgian Managa Jonathan Buatu may also feature at some level.

The club has however announced that various academy graduates have been released; Matthew Briggs, 23, has suffered from both crippling injuries as well as apparent bouts of the over-confidence that seem to have similarly derailed his former roommate Kerim Frei’s promising career. Should he regain full fitness he has the natural attributes to succeed at a good level, and were he to switch positions from left back to left midfield he could capitalise on his raw talent for crossing and shooting. Unfortunately for Briggs, Fulham have now run out of patience and he will have to seek a fresh start elsewhere. Philippine international goalkeeper Neil Etheridge also leaves the club. He previously impressed on loan but with the various goalkeepers mentioned above looking so promising, it made little sense for the club to keep him. Having appeared for Tromso in the Europa League last season Wales Under-21 midfielder Josh Pritchard leaves the club in the midst of his second spell in Scandinavian football, where he is currently at Finnish side Honka alongside fellow departee Alex Brister. Others to leave SW6 include Swedish striker Dino Islamovic, German’s Max Oberschmidt and Ronny Minkwitz along with local product Charles Banya. Despite not being part of Fulham’s future hopefully each and every one of them will enjoy success in the future.

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Finally, one player not mentioned either above or in the club’s released list is Swedish starlet Muamer Tankovic. Having made his Sweden debut earlier this year in a side that included his idol Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Tankovic has enjoyed a career path steeper than most mountain climbs over the past twelve months. He’s a vastly talented young player who would surely take up residence in the First XI next season were he to stay, but unlike the aforementioned Zlatan, who himself got his break into Malmo’s First Team upon their relegation to the second tier of Swedish football, it appears Tankovic is destined for pastures new. The Premier League retained list indicates the club has made Tankovic an offer to stay but the precocious teenager is out-of-contract and has signaled his intent to leave Fulham with a farewell message to fans on Instagram.

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Woodrow making his mark at Southend

Cauley Woodrow is keen to finish the season on loan at Southend United after scoring the winner for the Shrimpers at AFC Wimbledon on Boxing Day.

The former Luton Town forward is relishing the prospect of playing regular first-team football under Phil Brown in League Two and knows that Kit Symons, who is now looking after the first-team squad alongside new head coach Rene Meulensteen as well as looking after the club’s talented crop of youngsters, is paying particular attention to his progress on loan.

It was nice to get the goal. I’m enjoying it here at Southend and the players and staff is good to me and I just want to play as many games as possible. I’m here until the end of the season. Kit just wants me to do well and get as many games as possible. We’ve spoken and he’s been to a couple of games as well.

Woodrow, who made his England youth international debut whilst impressing for non-league Luton, believes Fulham will move away from the wrong end of the table under Meulensteen and is keen to bide his time before making an impact at Craven Cottage, although he knows he will be offered an opportunity should he keep performing.

They’ve got great reputations and I hope Fulham do well under them. I’m still young and hoping to get as much experience as possible at Southend, but it would be nice to challenge (the likes of Dimitar Berbatov). We’ll see.

The 19 year-old has scored four goals in sixteen appearances so far during his loan spell at Roots Hall.

Premier Academy Champions: Match Report

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.

Champions

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.

COYWs

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

Fulham Premier Academy League Champions Photos

Congratulations to the Fulham Under 18s, who this afternoon won the Premier Academy League with a 2-0 victory over Blackburn Rovers at Craven Cottage.

A full match report will appear on HammyEnd in due course, but in the meantime, here are some photos I took at the match.

COYWs

The teams walk out in front of the Johnny Haynes Stand's roof redevelopment

Pre-match huddle

O'Connell is booked for a foul on Ryan Williams

Captain Ronnie Minkwitz

The excellent Jack Grimmer

Sean Kavanagh's free kick hits the post

Manager Kit Symons

Celebrating Cauley Woodrow's opener

Ryan Williams, Cauley Woodrow and Mesca celebrate the first goal

Celebrating Ryan Williams' goal

O'Sullivan after being sent off

Full time

Champions

Champions

Post match interview for the skipper