As the calendar year came to a close, I thought I would review the fortunes and progress of the Fulham Academy Under 18s which I regularly watch. Using published tables prior to the 23rd December in respect of league games, we have played 11 producing 19 points, of which we won 5, drew 4 and lost 2. We have used 25 players scoring 24 and conceding 20. We are 4th out of 12 within a point of 3rd placed Leicester and 2 points behind 2nd placed Arsenal. Chelsea are top with 28 points.
Eligible talent that has moved onwards and upwards
It is important to note that Ryan Sessegnon, Steven Sessegnon, Matt O’Riley are all still eligible to play U18 football but have been fast-tracked to the 1st team and U23s respectively. Steven and Matt have played 1 and 2 U18 games respectively.
Whilst winning is always preferential, it is important but very much secondary to individual player development and their interaction with a variety of changing players and coaching demands. After all, only some will progress to U23 level and be offered contracts. The key is developing potential 1st team players and exposing them to all the variations that opposition teams can throw at them and how they deal with it whilst increasing their own skill set range.
England International Call-Ups to date
England U15 – Zico Asare
England U16 – Taye Ashby – Hammond, Luca Ashby-Hammond, Steven Sessegnon, Zico Asare, Showkat Al-Tahir and Sonny Hilton.
England U17 – Taye Ashby-Hammond, Steven Sessegnon (World Cup Winner) and Sonny Hilton
So who has taken the eye to date?
I think there are 2 outstanding players for me so far – Sonny Hilton and Luca Ashby-Hammond. Both are only 16 but both have that wow factor.
Firstly, Sonny instantly took the eye when he stepped up from the U16s last season. He started out life as a winger with Tranmere but was converted to play the playmaker role in the centre of midfield, which I think perfectly suits him, especially with his dribbling ability and vision. Recently, he has been pushed out wide to make room for talented Tyrese Francois but I feel it is a waste of his talent. He loves the ball at feet, wants to be involved, has quick feet, with a low centre of gravity and can shield the ball and turn either way leaving defenders for dead. He can spot a killer pass and if the ball is lost during a move he is determined and driven enough to get it back. At times I think he sees the ball as the team’s property and no opposition player will be allowed to play with it without his permission. He is positive, tenacious and an absolute joy to watch. He has weighed in from midfield with 4 goals to date and it is great to see a young lad who is not only confident in his own abilities but eager to be better. Sonny never hides during a game. As he grows physically, his confidence will grow even further and he will be able to influence games even more. What I also like is that he has a sneaky side to him; in one game at a Fulham free kick just outside the opposition penalty area, he knelt down to give the impression of attending to his boot laces. In doing so, he was looking all around at opposition positioning. The defender assigned to watch him moved away thinking he would be out of the play. In an instant, Sonny was up and had loads of space due to his marker moving elsewhere. I love it!
Secondly, I spoke to an ex-Fulham player last season extolling praises on goalkeeper Taye Ashby-Hammond, who I commented had a great season. I reflected that I had not seen the U16 keepers. Whilst agreeing with my overall evaluation of Taye, he came back with the comment – ‘if you think he is good, wait until you see the U16 keeper’. When questioned who he meant, as there were a few keepers, I was told ‘If you know your football, you won’t have to ask, you will know’. Having now seen the keepers, it is clear that he meant Luca Ashby-Hammond. What a season he has had to date.
I find it difficult to properly evaluate young goalkeepers who, as a rule, develop later than outfield players. It is far too easy for fans to simply look at shot stopping ability as the only yardstick to judge, as there is much more to the modern keepers’ game which can significantly influence results. However, his confidence is growing and he is excellent in directing his defence and midfield men who have momentarily switched off. Not only does he talk to them constantly about positioning, awareness and keeping their concentration levels going, the quality of his directions to them is generally spot on, which defies his tender years. I wondered if it would be fazed but when he played for the U23s he continued to instruct older and more experienced players around him likes a seasoned professional.
His positioning is generally good; that is a lifetime work for a keeper in making it perfect or near perfect. (NB: The great Peter Shilton used to do extra training on that daily even when an England international). Similarly, all keepers need to constantly work on the speed and quality of their distribution – when to hold it up, when to speed it up, go long, go short, throw, etc.etc. They need to work on angles, be able to dive and extend well on both sides, present a big target and make the opposition strikers do what you want them to do, especially in one-on-one situations. He is developing these skills at a decent rate, as it can take years hence I guess keepers developing late.
The one thing that stands out needing some work is organizing walls at opposition free kicks. He has been lead-footed and beaten on a couple of occasions, as the defensive wall blocking his view. Always a nightmare for keepers but there needs to be some work done there.
I commend anyone to watch recorded highlights of his performance in the FA Youth Cup penalty shoot-out win at Huddersfield. He must have ice running through his veins, as he not only saved 3 Huddersfield penalties but stepped up to score the winner with a well-directed blast. His equal balance on both feet and being on the tip of his toes means that any keeper has a better chance of pulling off a save. He can only go from strength to strength and is taller than most of the U18 keepers. The older more experienced Magnus Norman and Marek Rodak will be looking over their shoulders at both Luca and Taye. Some of you may have seen Luca recently at Craven Cottage when he was selected to join the 1st team pre-match warm up with Marcus Bettinelli and David Button. He can only benefit from the change in 1st team goalkeeping coach this year when Slavisa brought in Jose Carreira to enhance the goalkeeping coaching and range of skills.
Most improved player of the season
If Sonny and Luca are the standout U18 youngsters, there has to be mention of the most improved player this season – right back, Djed Spence (17). It is a totally different version to the young lad who played last year and the quality of his team contributions have been recognized with promotion to the U23s recently. The extra ingredient from last year seems to be a new belief and confidence that he can play and his speed is a huge asset.
Some other Academy Players
Chris Kelly (18) is a tricky wide player who has it in his repertoire to be a better player. I believe that injuries may have given him a stop/start season, so he is one I will watch with interest as he needs to put some consistent form together.
If injuries have stopped Chris Kelly, they have certainly affected Cameron Thompson’s (17) season but, regardless, he is a very good finisher with a great goalscoring season and, at the time of writing, is the leading scorer with 9 including a hat-trick at Reading. Cameron is a no-nonsense central striker who is very strong for his age and doesn’t leave centre backs time to pose with the ball for the cameras; a bit like a smaller pocket battleship version of Barry Hayles. He shields it well and has a striker’s nose for goal, never shirking that responsibility. Whilst he is not tall for a striker, he uses his physicality well and is not easily knocked off the ball. I find his determination an inspiration.
Australian born Tyrese Francois (17) has become a regular fixture in the team after a delayed start to his work permit last season. He is easy on the eye and his first touch and passing are good. Operating in the centre of midfield, he is an all-action player – good with the ball at feet and able to spot a pass to set his front players away. He is not slow in the tackle for his physique, although tackling skills could improve. He needs to pace himself more &/or improve on his entire match contributions. His overall shooting could improve as well in terms of technique and power.
Another who I like is no nonsense left back Dan Martin (18) who is excellent as an attacking wing back. The lad has a big heart and was one of the few players who will never give up until the final whistle, unlike a few of his colleagues; there was more than enough evidence of that in the Chelsea away defeat last September of 6-1. Dan is excellent going forward but could improve his defensive side and stop more crosses coming in – something that affects all our full backs. However, I feel that he had a more regular left-sided midfield player in front of him who would help him and track back; it would provide Dan with proper protection from 2 on 1 attacks.
Joe Felix (18) has captained the side and is a very useful attacking right back who whips in a great cross that defences hate to deal with. He has a big personality and high personal football standards. Underneath his relatively small stature lays a tough little hombre with a huge heart. Part of me wonders, like a few other regular watchers, if he will eventually play a wide right midfield role.
I also need to mention young Spanish player Nicolas Santa-Clase. He has good physical strength and has continued to improve his touch, shielding and dribbling ball skills, which stand out. I believe that the coaches are trying to get him to improve his desire to put in a shift when he hasn’t got the ball. After all, he only needs to look at the total shifts put in by world-class players in La Liga, such as Lionel Messi and Christian Ronaldo when they don’t have possession. He has shown signs of improvement in the defensive side of the game but there is a long way to go to satisfy the demands of English football. I find him very frustrating to watch, as his skill on the ball matched with his strength are unquestionable.
Young Timmy Abraham (17) is coming through but at an early stage in his Fulham development but his height and physicality gives us something different at this level. Built like his brother Tammy – tall, lean and mobile. He makes himself available with powerful runs or dropping short to control or lay off to others. Like Cameron, he never shirks responsibility.
What team positions need improvement?
Both ends of the spine are well catered for at this level but another central defender and a defensive central midfield man would be my priorities. I wonder whether Zico Asare (16 ), currently playing at the heart of the defence and developing an understanding of that role, may move back to the centre of midfield. When I saw him playing there a couple of times, he broke up play nicely and likes a tackle. He certainly has the physical strength. He needs to work on channelling his aggression in a more positive way but I reckon that will come.
The Big Team Lesson
Finally, the most ridiculous result this season was the 6-1 loss to division leaders Chelsea. Fulham were not only 1-0 up within the first half hour but were outplaying division leaders Chelsea all over the Cobham pitch and giving them a lesson in football. We failed to add to the solitary goal but one incident changed the game. The referee ignored pleas for a blatant foul to Joe Felix and, as a result, Chelsea went on to equalize which upset some of our players but lifted them. Many of our players’ heads dropped and continued to drop as Chelsea took heart and took control of a game. This game epitomized the need for mental toughness and, with the exception of a few, we lacked it and threw up the white flag. We were eventually murdered in midfield even when both wide players tucked in to plug the gaps. The coaches will have learned much from this game and some of the players would have had a sharp reality check in that it is not enough to believe in your skills alone without having the mental belief and toughness to fight until the end, especially as they were still in the game at 1-1 if they had gritted their teeth. Without that desire, it is difficult to see a decent career ahead for some.
Good luck to all the youngsters. I can’t wait for the second half of the season. Bring it on!