Ful Classes, No Graduates

It should surprise no one that Fabio Carvalho may be contemplating life away from Fulham Football Club. In the days since it emerged that the young star had refused a contract offer from the club that first provided him with the opportunity to be a professional footballer, there has been a mixture of disappointment and outrage from the fan base. Carvalho has been called naive, greedy and arrogant. All assumptions with very little base. 

What is more tangible when considering why a 19-year-old, in the midst of his first true season of senior football, would consider jumping ship at such an early stage, is the club’s lack of a track record when it comes to blooding young talent. The facts are that between Sean Davis and Ryan Sessegnon, exists a chasm of academy progress to the Craven Cottage senior ranks at a top flight level. Elvis Hammond made 11 appearances upon his graduation. Callum Willock just five. Even Kevin Betsy, who rarely failed to impress when given the chance only took the field in 15 league games as pro for The Whites. Zat Knight arrived as a 19-year-old, and made 181 appearances and gained two England caps, but much of his formative career was spent in his native midlands.

The likes of Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona, West Ham and Southampton have all been credited with an interest in Carvalho. While some of those clubs are known for big signings, all of them share a history of not just nurturing talent, but developing it and exposing young players to the biggest stages in club football. No one has progressed from Motspur Park to the grand stages of the Champions League in the way that the likes of Iker Casillas, Steven Gerrard, Xavi Hernandez, Rio Ferdinand and Gareth Bale have. And that’s just one example of many from each club.

Some have shown promise in the black and white, but didn’t hit the heights. Kerim Frei probably did leave too soon, and we’ll never know what might have been for Pat Roberts had he resisted the lure of Manchester City. However, depending on who you talk to, the club were as keen for the income as Robert’s may have been to join the elite. Others have had longer trials, Emerson Hyndman, Lasse Vigen Christensen, Cameron Burgess, Sean Kavanagh, Cauley Woodrow are just a few of the names to make the step up from age group teams. But frankly, none of them have gone on to have the sort of career that would mean anyone outside of their respective clubs and former employers will remember. You could argue they were simply not good enough, but so few to transition successfully speaks to a deeper issue. Moussa Dembele, part of the same youth side as Hyndman and Robert’s, made a jump when a break in his contract arrived. He went on to carve out his own path to European football via Scotland and titles with Celtic. He didn’t envisage the need for more than one full season by the Thames.

More recently, Harvey Elliot made a similar decision to the one Carvalho is reportedly close to making. He chose to sign for Liverpool, and after a loan spell in The Championship, looked to have established himself as a member of the first team squad at Anfield, before injury halted his involvement. Despite the unfortunate injury, Elliot’s decision was trending towards being a correct one, regardless of your ethical stance on clubs receiving court determined compensation for nurturing teenage footballers, only to see them freely sign a contract elsewhere.

Another example of a decision such as this paying dividends is Jadon Sancho. Having played for the illustrious Manchester City academy, Sancho opted to move abroad rather than sign professional terms in his home country. Seeing the pathway at City blocked, he signed for a club with a rich history of developing players for the big stage, Borussia Dortmund. After four seasons in Westphalia, Sancho returned to England a fully fledged international for a hefty transfer fee.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of Fulham’s inability to help inexperienced players grow is George Williams. The Welsh winger was actually capped by his country before making a senior appearance for his parent club at the time. In a tumultuous period under Felix Magath and then Kit Symons, the team struggled to adapt to the rigours of the second tier, and Williams made just 16 appearances. He was loaned out to previous club MK Dons and a range of other clubs. He’s now at Grimsby Town in League Two. Despite showing plenty of promise, Williams was not afforded the opportunity of stable place to progress, and has fallen down the football pyramid alarmingly. While there are cautionary tales of players moving too soon, his is a story of what might happen if you don’t move at the right time.

Fulham Football Club simply does not boast the history of the Saints or Hammers for developing academy products into international stars. And this is in spite of the academy irrefutably being one of the most successful in the country. The talent is clearly there as FA Youth Cup runs and U18 Premier League South titles can attest, but the pathway for one reason or another is not as well trodden as it is elsewhere. The argument that the players simply weren’t good enough, loses credibility when you hear of the glowing terms in which the academy is spoken of. They can’t all be short of the required ability when they are competing with sides and players who do go on to make a name for themselves.

Many have noted the clubs yo-yo tendencies as being a barrier for academy products, but even when the club was an established Premier League outfit, there was still a reliance on experienced pro’s to get the job done. In the later years, that proved to be the undoing of The Cottagers top flight residency. The club has tried, but often failed to integrate youngsters like Matthew Briggs and Zesh Rehman into the first team.

Carvalho’s head may well have been turned, but it is likely that was not without having first seen the evidence before him. More senior professionals have been cast aside upon gaining promotion with his current employers, and even established prospects such as Marek Rodak, and before him Marcus Betinelli, have been demoted upon arrival in the top flight. Such was the blockade for homegrown players, that Matt O’Reilly chanced his arm with free agency and dropped down to League One to secure the minutes he felt were valuable to his career progression.

The academy of a club like Fulham should have two roles. To provide players able to make an impact in the first team squad, and to allow the club to move players on at a profit in the right circumstances. At present Fulham’s is doing neither. To blame the player in this instance is to ignore the flagrant failures of the club. Fulham needs to ensure it presents itself as a place where the collection of exciting potential currently signed on, feel it is in their best interest to stay. The talent is clearly there, but is not being effectively nurtured. The club can start by demonstrating a tradition of promoting youth, and allowing it to grow and flourish in high level competitions. If the club does get back to the Premier League, it must then stay there. When it does, it is imperative that youth is given a chance in a way it was not previously. Proving this will be the case to the likes of Jay Stansfield, Ziyad Larkeche, Sonny Hilton and Terry Ablade could yet take a while, as there are years of contrary evidence to overwrite. If Carvalho does end up staying, he could become the poster boy of a new Craven Cottage tradition.