I have regularly watched Under 18 and Under 23 (formerly U21) academy home games for about 5 years and on an ad hoc basis previously. Not surprisingly, have got to know many serving the Fulham Academy. It is against that backdrop that I have gained a great respect for the work on and off the pitch of staff and the young scholars who hope to embark on a successful football career. I dearly wish them every success.
The following is my top 10 academy player list in reverse order; their skill, ability and quality have attracted my attention? Ordering players in terms of their overall ability is always contentious and bound to cause debate, which is healthy.
10 – Tayo Edun
He doesn’t accept anything less than 100% and is both tough and demanding of himself and others: Very confident in his own ability with good reason. Strong in the defensive part of the game and in the tackle; converted from left back to the centre of midfield, where he played for England U17s and now U19s. Respected by his teammates and, possibly, a future team captain. I saw him play the first half of a friendly against Brighton U23s managed by Liam Rosenior at the beginning of the season, just prior to his Ipswich loan. He was a class above everyone else on the field and had the Sunderland scout present checking about his availability with those present. Much more to learn in midfield and I expect him to develop much further on loan at Ipswich.
9 – Emerson Hyndman
Very disappointed to see him move on when we were relegated in order to enhance his international prospects, especially as his career has gone backwards since moving to Bournemouth, although injury has played its part too. Excellent and fast at playing accurate long diagonal balls to either flank to set off speedy wide men during his Fulham tenure; shields the ball well when necessary and has a good engine. When Kit occasionally played him is an occasional varied midfield role in the 1st team, he showed his willingness to adapt and played intelligently drifting in and out between the lines of the opposition midfield and defensive causing marking confusion in the process.
8 – George Williams
He was progressing extremely well through U18s to U23s when a cruel ACL injury destroyed his progress and set him back a long way. Despite that, he fought back and gained representative honours with Wales. Didn’t seem to fit Kit’s 1st team style requirements and by the time he was back near his best at U23 level, Slavisa had signed other players for that role. A few loans did nothing to help him: Now at Forest Green Rovers and I hope he feels he has gone backwards to go forwards again: Gave me one of my favourite U18 moments in the FA Youth Cup away fixture at QPR a few years ago. He terrorised the right back beating him for pace, going either side of him, executing a nutmeg on him and then doing the same later on with their left back. Would dearly love him to get back to his best and for his career go forward again.
7 – Matt O’Riley
Another excellent work in progress that, like the Sessegnon brothers and Marlon, also enjoys Slavisa’s personal interest in his development. Has great vision at seeing potential game-breaking passing opportunities that others don’t picture let alone execute and is largely accurate in his distribution to match that vision. Sometimes others are not on his wavelength. I always feel that he would benefit from some extra coaching from Danny Murphy, the passing master, to perfect this skill further. Definitely has something of the Michael Carrick about his game. Needs to work harder on stamina and positioning when we are not in possession, which will come. Has the ability to go much further.
6 – Steven Humphrys
Another of my favourites. Currently on loan to Scunthorpe after previous loans to Shrewsbury and Rochdale: regarded by teammates as a bit of a ‘moaner’ but sets himself a tough standard and beats himself up if not obtained but expects other teammates to be the same. I like my strikers to be both competent and confident and Steven lacks neither. Never seemingly fazed, he took his loan period goal very well against Spurs in the cup at Wembley last season. He is strong and a prolific goal scorer for Fulham and, whilst I don’t have full historical statistics readily available, must have created a club record 2 seasons ago by being the top scorer at both under 18 and under 23 level in the same season. He strikes a ball powerfully and extremely well and can never be accused of not shooting on sight. Has decent good close ball skills for a big lad and favours some basic stepovers when running at people. Takes a decent free kick usually on target and scored many academy goals with headers from the back post: A player who likes to run at defences, rather than play with his back to the opposition goal.
5 – Moussa Dembele
A class smash and grab act with Cauley Woodrow in the U18s and, arguably, the best striker pairing that the academy has had for many years. Both had a superb instinctive understanding. Never blisteringly fast but physically strong but had with a striker’s instinct for goals; very sure of his own ability; never one to waste energy by being pulled out of central positions. Some saw it as laziness but, for me, he was disciplined in leaving the wider space for our faster, trickier players to exploit and cross the ball where he could in place to deliver the decisive blow. The damage he can inflict is not wide but in and directly around the ‘box’: Very direct in front of goal and making centre backs pay for temporal lapses of concentration or from his close attention forcing errors. Prefers to face goal as opposed to having his back to it but can provide either service.
4 – Steven Sessegnon
Apart from Andre Schurrle, the other World Cup-winning Fulham player in the Fulham squad – at U17 level. Fast catching up on a missed injury-racked season about 3 years ago. Like his brother, a quality player who is also very comfortable with the ball at his feet but has a better panoramic vision when playing centrally– rarely wasting a pass and seeing the whole canvass. Like Ryan, a thoroughly committed player with a winning mentality and an equally level-headed approach to the game. Has filled in at both U18 and U23 level as a centre back when necessary and has a decent spring and great positional awareness/game management to deal with his lack of height in that position. Despite that, he is still better and more comfortable in his preferred right-back role at club level, as he is at international level. Very composed and, like Ryan, a role model for youngsters to follow.
3 – Marlon Fossey
Watched him since he was 15 playing for Under 16s, Under 18s and Under 23s. He can give the false impression of being uninterested at times but it is all part of his extremely laid back nature that has served him well, thus far.
Watched him develop from being a young lad learning his trade to a young man with his unquestionable quality development as well at Fulham academy and USA at U20 level. In February 2017 he was not only a key player in the first-ever CONCAFF victory by the USA. His performances were widely acknowledged and he was selected as one of the best 11 players of the entire tournament covering the continents of North and South America. A natural athlete, who could have represented the country at athletics but chose football instead; very gifted in close control, speed, with the ball at feet and with a clear understanding of striking positions learned prior to being converted to an attaching right wing back.
Great balance, poise and control; indeed, his ball control and first touch are outstanding and as good as anyone at the club; fast and forward thinking with a natural athletic running style and acceleration at times. He whips in some great crosses.
I rate him as the best player currently outside the 25 man 1st team squad, although the subsequent loan of Fosu-Mensah has made that more difficult. However, his season has been dealt a cruel blow with injury, which looks like it could rule him out for the season as it did most of last season.
The Top Two
The most difficult two to separate are Pat Roberts and Ryan Sessegnon. They both have outstanding talents in different ways but only one seems well advised and his progress has been substantially aided as a result. If you judge academy players for taking their chances and how far they go with Fulham or beyond, it has to be Ryan and especially as he has been positively identified by Gareth Southgate as a potential full England player of the future.
However, lovers of the beautiful game who have been lucky enough to regularly marvel at the individual brilliance of Pat Roberts in trying to be the next Lionel Messi in style and ability will point to him. Success should have been the move to Manchester City but the incredibly long loan to Celtic was strange, although a short-term loan to toughen him up and expose him to the physicality of the Scottish game seemed a wholly sensible approach.
As my brief was to give my top 10 academy players that I have seen, I have decided to take that literally and judge by appearances for only the academy. With that criterion directing my thinking, I have decided as follows…
2 – Ryan Sessegnon
Whilst Pat is the most naturally gifted, Ryan is the more complete player who has taken his chances at 1st team level with relish. I have watched him since he was 15 and knew he would be good but the extent of his progress and desire to succeed has taken him much further in a short space of time than I had ever imagined. Always fast and eager t attack from left-back he was always a more physically strong player at that age than most. He relished in getting forward going forward with a wonderful engine to get him up and down the left flank. He had a similar eye to Pat in attack in making space and his blindside movement. Always a beautifully grounded lad with a hugely supportive and well earthed and respected family, who have advised him well.
It would be wrong not also to pay tribute to Slavisa and the first team coaches who have polished him further beyond the academy and to Ryan for absorbing new ideas and way of playing, so quickly. His introduction to the 1st team has proved to be what dreams are made of and his composed finishing belies his age. Last season, he made the wide left midfield role his own and that ability to lose players and drift into the box on the blind-side meant a highly respectable goal tally. His close ball control is excellent and his confidence at knowing when to run at players and be confident of his control and quick burst of speed.
1 – Pat Roberts
He is by far the most naturally gifted ballplayer who I have seen and it is plain to see the influence on him of Lionel Messi, whose DVDs he religiously studied and practised many of the skills of the great man. Indeed, a nickname for him from his fellow players was Little Messi. A beautifully balanced player with great passing vision; he could always find extra yards of space with ease like the top professionals and was an important goalscorer and provider of quality passes. He made space for others to operate and would tie up the opposition in midfield by either drawing them wide to cover his inevitable beating of the first defender or orchestrate attacks from the central ground with the opposition not knowing which options he would pick. A match winner and someone who gave the opposition real problems on how to mark him or negate his game influence.
Since leaving Fulham, he is still a very gifted player who has, arguably, been poorly advised by his representatives. It breaks my heart to see him stagnate, as nobody with that amount of talent should be in that position.
Finally, what of the future of players under 18 this season? Briefly, which 5 players to watch?
• Luca Ashby-Hammond (17) – Goalkeeper (likely to be an U23 regular with cameo appearances at U18 level)
• Sonny Hilton (17) – Midfield. Playing wide right but best in the centre.
• Harvey Elliott (15) – Wide Midfield (Despite his tender age, expect him to be an U18 regular this season).
• Terry Ablade (16) – Main Striker (1st season at the club, so early days)
• Sylvester Jasper (16) – Support Striker (Will be an U18 regular)