In Focus: Fulham – Young at Heart

They cherish their home-grown heroes at Fulham. That much is confirmed by a visit to the London club’s Craven Cottage stadium. 

Adjacent to the Grade II listed cottage, from which the stadium takes its name, is the Johnny Haynes Stand – renamed in honour of the flying forward who advanced through the ranks at Fulham to become the club’s greatest ever player. 

Situated on the opposite side of the picturesque ground, alongside the River Thames, is a statue of George Cohen, another youth team graduate who spent his entire career at Fulham and played in England’s FIFA World Cup-winning side of 1966. 

Haynes, who won 56 England caps and wore Fulham’s white shirt from 1950 to 1968, is also remembered with a statue at Craven Cottage. 

It underlines the importance of history and tradition to Fulham fans. Those too young to have seen Haynes and Cohen in action may hark back fondly to other names from more recent eras. 

Paul Parker, the pint-sized defender who originally made his name at Fulham in the 1980s before going on to reach a FIFA World Cup semi-final with England and win the Premier League and FA Cup double with Manchester United, is one such example. 

So is Sean Davis, the midfielder who made his Fulham debut at the age of 17 and went on to play an important part in the club’s rapid ascent through the divisions to reach the Premier League in 2001. 

While the generosity of owner Mohamed Al Fayed gave Fulham the spending power to join English football’s elite at that time, the club have continued working to develop their own players from within. 

During Al Fayed’s years of investment, the club built up their academy to gain category one status – the highest grading in English youth football – and have retained that under current owner Shahid Khan, who bought Fulham in 2013. 

Category one status translates not just into improved facilities for young players at the club’s training base in Motspur Park, Surrey, but also what academy director Huw Jennings views as the right kind of culture. 

Jennings, who has been in charge of Fulham’s youth set-up for the last 11 years, believes a successful academy must consider educational and emotional development as much as progress on the pitch. 

“We pride ourselves on having a real family feel and people often remark on this when they visit us,” he says.  

“Our owners have invested in it from the outset and given us great support. We could cast envious glances at clubs with what might be described as spaceship academies but, as well as good facilities, we have an environment that demonstrates care and support. 

“The heartland of inner London is very multi-ethnic, with different nationalities, so we draw from a real melting pot and it’s great that we can embrace that diversity. 

“We need to make players feel comfortable, give them a sense of belonging and a shared purpose. What’s key to that is the support we provide from an educational and welfare perspective. 

“Young athletes are heavily exposed to challenges like anxiety and being able to cope in adversity. If you take areas like mental health and well-being, we see a primary role for us here.” 

In addition to that support network, young prospects at Fulham also benefit from witnessing the success of those players who have gone before them – tangible evidence that they too can eventually advance to first-team football. 

During Jennings’ time at the club, almost 40 players have come through from youth-team football to represent Fulham’s senior side, including a number who ultimately went on to find success elsewhere. 

Notable examples of those are prolific Lyon striker Moussa Dembele, who scored 17 goals in the 2015/16 campaign for Fulham before moving on to win six trophies in two seasons with Scottish champions Celtic. 

Talented winger Patrick Roberts – like Dembele, one of the stars of the Fulham side that went all the way to the FA Youth Cup Final in 2014 – is another academy graduate whose career has also taken in a fruitful spell with Celtic. 

Having joined Fulham as a 13-year-old, Roberts made his Premier League debut at the age of just 17 and went on to make 22 appearances before his potential convinced Manchester City to shell out £12m for his signature. 

City then loaned Roberts out to Celtic, where he helped the Glasgow club to a clean sweep of all the domestic trophies on offer in consecutive seasons, and he has since also gained a taste of La Liga football, with a season-long loan at Girona in Spain.  

The chances are that the former Fulham prospect, now 22, will find his way back to the Premier League at some point – as indeed have some other players who previously honed their skills at Motspur Park. 

In recent years, those include goalkeeper Neil Etheridge – now first choice between the posts for Cardiff City – and Brighton defender Dan Burn, while others have progressed to feature at the highest level elsewhere in Europe. 

Wingers Alexander Kacaniklic (Nantes) and Kerim Frei (Besiktas) both went on to become full internationals for Sweden and Turkey respectively, and striker Marcello Trotta has played in Serie A for Sassuolo and Frosinone. 

Inevitably, however, the greatest sense of satisfaction comes from the emergence of young players who not only flourish in Fulham’s academy, but then make a successful transition into their own first team. 

Ryan Sessegnon is one of the club’s most recent success stories in that category. Growing up in Surrey, he and his twin brother Steven – who is on the fringes of the first-team squad – joined Fulham at the age of eight. 

Having started in a forward role, Ryan was gradually converted to a left-sided defender or midfielder and progressed quickly, to the extent that he was still only 15 when invited to train with the senior side. 

Promoted to the first team soon after his 16th birthday, Sessegnon enjoyed a stellar debut season, becoming the youngest player to score a goal in the Championship and finishing the campaign with seven from 30 appearances. 

He continued to blossom during the 2017/18 campaign, earning himself the Championship player of the season award as well as a nomination for the PFA Young Player of the Year – a recognition never before shown to anyone outside the Premier League. 

But Sessegnon ensured that he would soon become a Premier League player, rounding off the season in style as he supplied the pass for Tom Cairney to score the only goal against Aston Villa in the Championship play-off final at Wembley Stadium. 

Fulham’s line-up that day also contained another academy graduate in the shape of their goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli, a south Londoner who had to wait until he was 22 to make his senior debut for the club. 

Bettinelli has since amassed more than 100 appearances for Fulham and, shortly before being sidelined by a recent knee operation, he received his first call-up to England’s senior squad – further proof of that potential route to the top. 

“To have produced two of the starting 11 in the play-off final that season was fantastic for the academy,” Jennings reflects. 

Unfortunately, Marcus has been injured this season and Ryan has found it tough as well, but he’s still very young and, as I’ve said to him many times, this challenging period will be good for him in the long run. 

“In terms of the past, we’re also proud of the way players like Moussa Dembele and Patrick Roberts developed in our programme. They’ve both excelled at new clubs and are now able to show they can play at the highest level. 

“You always want to see them do well. I think younger players feel reassured when they can see the benefits of that pathway and it’s one of the reasons the majority of them want to stay with us. 

“At the same time, when players see their peers and even those younger than them getting into the first-team environment, there can be a bit of a ‘why not me?’ feeling. So it can be a challenge to ensure the timing is right for every player.” 

That challenge had to be handled earlier this season when Fulham handed a senior debut to midfielder Harvey Elliott – making him, at 15 years and 174 days, their youngest ever first-team player. 

Elliott, who replaced Floyd Ayite for the final 10 minutes of Fulham’s Carabao Cup win against Millwall in September, also became the youngest player to feature in the history of the competition. 

Like Sessegnon, the midfielder is a product of Coombe Boys’ School, which is situated close to Motspur Park. In Jennings’ view, maintaining strong ties with a youngster’s family, as well as his school, is essential when easing him into the first-team environment. 

“You’ve got to be very mindful, when dealing with someone of that age, that you don’t over-expose them,” he says. “It’s critical that we work with the player’s family as well and Ryan’s were an absolute dream from day one. 

(Former head coach) Slavisa Jokanovic was keen to make sure there were opportunities for talented young players. With Harvey, we liaised very closely with his family on the potential debut he was likely to make. 

“Harvey had been on a training camp with the first team in Spain, he stood out there, and the natural progression after that was for him to be involved in the squad for the Carabao Cup. 

“Coombe have been exceptionally supportive as well – they’ve been a model partner for many years and a lot of work goes into that partnership.” 

The pathway to first-team football at Fulham is not necessarily an identical one for every player. While Elliott was given an early taste of Carabao Cup action, others are nurtured in the club’s under-23 side, competing against young players from Premier League rivals. 

Some are sent out on loan, either overseas or to clubs further down the English league structure. Fulham have high hopes for Iceland’s Jon Dagur Thorsteinsson, an attacking midfielder who has spent the past year on loan to Danish Superliga side Vendsyssel. 

Closer to home, Slovakian goalkeeper Marek Rodak has been on loan to Rotherham for the last two seasons, playing Championship football during 2018/19, while forward Elijah Adebayo spent last season in the fourth tier with Swindon Town and then Stevenage. 

Whichever route young Fulham players take, their progression into the professional game is the yardstick by which the academy staff measure success – rather than any silverware that might be secured at youth level. 

With that said, the club take pride in achievements such as those of the ander-18 team that collected back-to-back Premier Academy League titles in 2012 and 2013, setting the stage for Fulham’s first FA Youth Cup final appearance a year later. 

Dembele, Roberts and Rodak were all part of the side that overcame Queens Park Rangers, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City – all away from home – before beating Huddersfield Town in the quarter-final and seeing off Reading in the last four thanks to a Dembele hat-trick. 

The Fulham youngsters then beat a Chelsea side containing Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Andreas Christensen and Dominic Solanke 3-2 in the first leg of the final at Craven Cottage, but were edged out 5-3 in the return game as their neighbours snatched the trophy. 

“Anyone who watched those two games would have seen a celebration of attacking youth football – there were some really exciting players on show,” Jennings recalls. 

“I think that was a period where delivering some team success for Fulham was quite important because the academy had not had the attention it merited. 

“But we’re always conscious that team success has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Some of those players from the FA Youth Cup side have made good steps and others haven’t. 

“If someone said to me ‘you can win the FA Youth Cup twice and have no first-team players come through, or be runners-up twice and bring through lots of players’, no question – I’d take the second option all day long.”