Focus Fives: The Grass Isn’t Always Greener

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The nature of Fulham’s standing in the football landscape is so, that players who impress at Craven Cottage will always be courted by those higher in the domestic hierarchy. Since first arriving in the Premier League in 2001, there have been a number of players who have made a move to a so-called bigger club, but with varying success. One place a few of those have departed to, is White Hart Lane. The success level in that case is less varied…

RYAN SESSEGNON

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When Ryan Sessegnon joined Tottenham Hotspur in August 2019, he went with the blessing of most Fulham fans, who looked forward to taking pride in the schooling the prospect had received at Motspur Park ahead of his upcoming, big break. A little more than a year later, and Sessegnon’s progress appears to have stalled somewhat, as he finds himself taking in a loan spell with Hoffenheim at the finishing school known as The Bundesliga. 

Sessegnon’s spell at Spurs, though still short, has already seen a managerial change. He survived his fair share of these in West London, but the arrival of Jose Mourinho was always going to raise questions around the progress of any bright young thing. Mouriinho’s reputation for blooding youngsters isn’t exactly well-renowned, and Sessegnon saw his opportunities limited after the Portuguese’ arrival at the end of November 2019. 9 appearances last season under his latest boss tells its own story. 

The arrival of Sergio Reguilon, a freshly minted Europa League winner and Spanish international, as well as Gareth Bale’s return, even on loan, adds further question marks. It’s certainly not time to write off the talented winger-cum-fullback, but it would also be fair to say that the move hasn’t worked out exactly how those involved would have foreseen. 


SEAN DAVIS

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Sean Davis was the last homegrown prospect to look on the verge of the big time. Touted as a transfer target for Everton initially, before making the same cross-capital move as Sessegnon, to Enfield. At Craven Cottage, Davis was a heroic figure. Who can forget the promotion sealing goal against Blackburn, or his player of the season performances in the 2002-03 season? At the end of that stellar season he tested the adoration of the Fulham faithful by handing in a transfer request, citing a desire to “further his career”. But injury meant a projected move to Everton never materialised. He stayed another year before departing for White Hart Lane, where lasted one, injury-plagued season before being loaned out to Portsmouth, after making just 15 league appearances. 

After what was supposed to be a temporary switch, he never returned. While at Pompey, the south coast side lifted the FA Cup in 2008, but Davis was not in the squad on that day. It’s not beyond reason to suggest that Davis never did manage to further his career after leaving his boyhood club. While at Fulham, he knocked on the door of an England call-up but only made it as far as the the Under-21s. After leaving, he wasn’t mentioned in such conversations again.


STEED MALBRANQUE

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N17 was also the destination of another modern-day hero. Steed Malbranque delighted Whites fans from the moment he arrived from Lyon, contributing goals alongside tireless running and moments of brilliance. He was a player for the big occasion, scoring goals against Manchester United and Liverpool in memorable wins. Top scorer in 2002-03, he totalled 44 goals across 211 appearances, firmly establishing himself and the impassioned chant of “STEEEEEDDD!” in Fulham folklore. 

Sadly the end was, again slightly acrimonious. With a year left on his contract, Malbranque signalled his intention to leave on a free transfer upon its expiry. Not wanting to lose an asset for nothing, Chris Coleman placed him on the transfer list before accepting a reported £2million fee from future Fulham boss Martin Jol. Steed, unlike Davis before him, got plenty of appearances under his belt at Spurs, and was well-liked by the fans. He also started the 2008 League Cup Final in which Tottenham triumphed over our noisy neighbours. 

Despite some relative success, Malbranque only spent two years in North-East London, before moving to the less glamorous surroundings of North-East England, where he played for 3 years on Wearside. This move coincided with Tottenham establishing themselves as Top 4 contenders, and Champions League participants. Malbranque certainly looked a player worthy of Europe’s top table while with Fulham, and moving on at the age of 26, it seemed he would continue his rise. But the emergence of a young Bale and the arrival Luka Modric took the club to the next level without our trusty Steed. That he was still only 28 on his arrival in Sunderland raises eyebrows. Two goals in 112 appearances raises them further. In what should have been his prime years, the former French Under-21 international was plying his trade in the bottom half of the Premier League.


CLINT DEMPSEY

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Another who failed to live up to their Cottage reputation after heading to Hotspur Way, Clint Dempsey left Fulham under a cloud when he no longer felt “valued and appreciated” by the club. Now at the helm in SW6, Jol would reveal that the appreciation Deuce sought was likely more financial, and that he had said “time after time” he wanted to play Champions League football, something he did not do during his one-year stint in Enfield. 

Dempsey was the leading man in his final years at Fulham, having already contributed crucial goals in the clubs recent history. First securing our Premier League status in 2007 with the winner against Liverpool, then creating club history as he chipped Antonio Chimenti at the Hammersmith End. After agitating for playing time amongst Europe’s elite, Dempsey settled for another season in the Europa League, after Mohammed Al-Fayed refused to do business with Liverpool, before heading back Stateside to ply his trade for The Seattle Sounders. Probably not what he had in mind when he emptied his locker at Motspur Park.


MOUSA DEMBÉLÉ

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Mousa Dembele made the switch in somewhat different circumstances, having his release clause triggered when Daniel Levy shrewdly secured his services for a reported £15million. Initially joining as an attacking player, Dembele settled in quickly at Craven Cottage, scoring on his full debut, and laying on two assists in his first league start for the club. He quickly added two more goals in a game against Wolves, and scored Fulham’s goal of the season against his future employers, cooly finishing after a hypnotising run from the half-way line. The goals soon dried up though, and led to Martin Jol utilising Dembele in a deeper midfield role that made use of his incredible technical skills and equally impressive physical attributes. 

It was in this role that Dembele would cement himself as one of the most talented players many a living Whites fan has seen. That Spurs were able to secure a 25-year old of his calibre for such a price should be commended or lamented depending on which side of the table you sit. I, among others I have spoken with, expected Dembele to excel beyond even Tottenham, who were now a regular top-4 contender. He would experience Champions League football in each of his last three seasons in the white half of North London, but won no trophies in five and a half seasons. A player of such class should have more to show for his career. It is telling that fans of both London clubs were disappointed to see him leave, feeling he still had plenty to offer. 

Those that didn’t live up to their Cottage reputations upon departure, were often a part of teams that were specifically tailored to allow them to shine. Whether we like to admit it or not, we have rarely, if ever, possessed a team of stars. Rather, we tend to have a collective made up of functional parts that allow the minority of specially talented individuals to shine in prominent roles. When moving on, those talents are asked to fit into a system that already revolves around another set of gifted individuals, and the new arrivals are required to adapt. Big fish syndrome may well be a real thing in the world of football, and perhaps for some, the smaller pond of Fulham is a better place to swim than the oceans of those higher on the food chain. But for one player in particular, even the waters of White Hart Lane were arguably still too shallow.