Saturday 24th November 2018, 1100 Kick Off
Fulham FC U18 vs Chelsea FC U18
Nestled snugly in the Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames, is the leafy suburb of Motspur Park, and around 500 metres from it’s eponymous train station, is the training ground of Premier League Fulham.
A large manor-type property, the actual HQ building is surrounded by luscious green fields, and an indoor complex which can only be accurately equated to the sort of hangars where a NATO partner might store a long-range bomber. Enclosing this whole campus, is a ten foot high fence, keeping the prying eyes of scouts, journalists, and nosy Kingstonians away from behind-closed-doors scoops.
However, they couldn’t keep me out. Because, erm, I asked if I could come in to take photos. However, being there in an official photographic capacity made it difficult to take enough notes to write a full match report, so I’ve instead satisfied myself with a ten point “interest piece” on the match, environment, and nature of Premier League Academy football. On top of that, a match report on a nil nil draw rarely makes good reading…
1. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but these kids are good
The talent on show is obvious. In terms of technical ability, there really can’t be much difference between the players getting their kicks of a sodden pitch here today, and those further up the pyramid. It’s not until you see this, that you realise just how competitive the world of football is. There is no one – and I mean no one – playing here, who wouldn’t have been the best player you’ve ever played with. From as far afield as Singapore and as close to home as Staines, the net has been dragged and trawled everywhere, and it’s found the talent. But only some of these players will even progress to U23 level, and from then on even fewer still to the long-term professional ranks, let alone to their respective first teams at Fulham and Chelsea.
Whatever you may think when you see the fancy dans in Premier League football, and think that they don’t really give a shit, it’s worth remembering just what they’ve overcome to be there. For the 22 lads on the pitch today, there are literally hundreds of thousands who have fallen by the wayside – they haven’t had the talent, desire, luck or support to get to this level, let alone any futher.
2. Chelsea are arguably the pre-eminent force in youth football
They may only be third in the league following this draw against 7th placed Fulham (U18 football is divided into North and South divisions until the season finals…), but Chelsea are arguably the major force in youth football. Supported by a vast scouting network and inexhaustible resources, the young Blues are the double reigning champions at U18 level.
They’ve been criticised in the past for simply picking the biggest, strongest lads and prioritising success at yough level over footballing development, and they certainly had some big chaps on offer today. The likes of Hounslow-born midfielder Jon Russell, and George Nunn signed from Crewe Alexandra stood head and shoulders over their Fulham counterparts, but definitely had the technical ability to go with it.
3. The football is slow – and there’s very little aggression
Understandably, when the focus is on development, the pace of the game was much slower than it might otherwise have been. With the focus on (ostensibly) providing players ready for the first team, both sides played with the same set-up and playing focus as the Premier League first teams, but without the aggression and intensity that top flight football necessitates.
That isn’t to say that the players were slow – absolutely not. The athleticism on display was exceptional. For Fulham, substitute Sylvester Jasper and former-Tranmere midfielder Sonny Hilton were rapid, whilst the Blues had Chelsea born Marcel Lavinier and Cambridge born Marcel Lewis flying up the wings at speed.
However, with Premier League football the overall goal, particularly for Chelsea, the focus was on possession football, and was characterised by slow, deliberate passing sideways to open up opportunities. On the rare occasions that pace was injected into the play, it was often during counter attacking transitions, usually orchestrated by either Russell, Ballo, or Ben Davis for Fulham.
4. The understandable lure of the loan system
This slower pace means something more is needed to demonstrate readiness for the first team, and that can be provided through the loan system. Whilst players here are playing for their contracts, they are young, and it is very different to the pressure which faces a 32 year old fighting for one last contract to pay their mortgages and feed their children. That intensity and desire cannot be reproduced on the manicured lawns that form the football pitches of professional academies, so it’s off to the lower leagues to hone that fighting spirit.
Chelsea are probably the most famous exponents of the loan system, and could just about fill the O2 arena with their loannees. With the likes of Jamal Blackman at Leeds, Trevoh Chalobah at Ipswich, and Ike Ugbo at Scunthorpe United, Chelsea’s strategy of loaning out promising talent has seen 43 players depart Stamford Bridge temporarily this season alone.
Fulham, by contrast, keep most of their youngsters around, similarly to Tottenham. However, there are still a select few gaining experience around the lower leagues, with Magnus Norman on loan to Rochdale and Adetayo Eyun at Ipswich to name just two.
5. Fulham’s defending was magnificent
Whilst Chelsea may have been missing their top scorer, Poole-born England youth international Faustino Anjorin, they still had more than enough in their ranks to trouble Fulham. However, although Chelsea enjoyed the vast majority of the pressure, the young Fulham charges – in stark contrast to their first team peers – defended resolutely, and were exceptionally well ogranised by manager Colin Omogbehin. Bolstered in midfield by both Ben Davis and Ryan de Havilland who were comfortable sitting and closing down within their own half, the Fulham back line held firm. Marshalled by captain Zico Asare, an all-action bullishly-built 17 year old Londoner, the back four worked well as a unit. Australian Riley Warland complemented him well at centre back, and they were flanked by the smart-tackling Tristan Cover and Chertsey-born Connor McAvoy.
6. George Wickens was crucial for Fulham
The real star for the home side though was George Wickens. Standing well over 6ft, the stopper from Petersfield was in imperious form for the Whites, and made some outstanding first half stops to keep the scores level. The goalkeeping ranks are pretty well stocked at Fulham, with the likes of Taye and Luca Ashy-Hammond, as well as Magnus Norman showing real potential, but Wickens will do his chances of long term-progression harm with performances like this. Recent acknowledgement within the England system also won’t have hurt his cause, and he is one of the few who has already signed professional terms – so he’s clearly well thought of at Craven Cottage.
This was a truly man of the match performance by a very promising young ‘keeper.
7. The pressure is extreme but the rewards are obvious
With hordes of parents stood on the sideline watching expectantly, it is obvious how much pressure these lads must be under to win professional contracts. U18 is the last ago group at which most players are scholars, not full time pros, with only two of those in the Fulham side today on full time contracts.
A full time deal coupled with a step up to the U23s is when most will start to feel that they have “made it”, but really the battle is still only just beginning. Every match at U18 and U23 is crucial for two reasons – to develop, to improve, but also because it is an audition. Too many poor decisions, sloppy passes or mixed tackles, and someone is coming up from the U16s to take their place, then it’s exceptionally difficult to win that spot back. Despite their vast riches, Premier League clubs don’t give contracts out like Werthers Originals, and only the best will secure them.
But, as they left with their families post-match, the rewards which they so desperately want were all too visible. With the first team at home in the afternoon (a 3-2 victory over Southampton, with Academy graduate Ryan Sessegnon at the forefront) the players were all in for pre-match preparation. Their hundred thousand pound cars adorned the forecourt at Motspur Park, and it was a tantalising glimpse of what lays in store for that lucky and committed few who reach the promised land.
8. This is a truly global endeavour
One of the interesting unexpected results of the push for English players in the Premier League, is that it has actually increased the non-English academy entrants. With a premium now placed on “homegrown” players (i.e. someone trained at the club for three years before the age of 21), clubs now recruit as young as possible from all over the world to ensure a suitable bank of homegrown players, irrespective of nationality.
On the pitch at the starting whistle today were English, Scottish, Australian, Portuguese, Singaporean, Northern Irish, Dutch and Austrian players. A dynamic blend of players from the historic heartlands of their clubs (South London representatives such as Ryan de Havilland of Wimbledon and Tristan Cover of Tooting), and far-flung locations such as Perth’s Riley Warland and Abidjan’s Thierno Ballo really showcases the global nature of high-level football.
Perhaps most interesting is the story of Fulham midfielder Ben Davis. Born in Phuket, Thailand, he was spotted in a scouting mission to a youth tournament in Singapore. When his British heritage was discovered, Fulham acted quickly, and when his family relocated to Harrow, he was signed to the Academy. Uncapped, but having been called up to the Singapore national team, Davis is an U19 international and is also eligible for England and Thailand. The worldwide nature of youth football can provide unexpected hurdles, especially in Davis’s case, where the spectre of being called back to Singapore to serve his national service is a very real possibility.
9. Thierno Ballo, Dynel Simeu and Clinton Mola have real potential – but will they realise it at Chelsea?
As for Chelsea, they (as you would expect) have talent scattered throughout their ranks. To highlight just three is difficult, and could be seen as lazy in a summary piece, but I love to go for the lazily difficult anachronism, so that’s just what I’ve done. Thierno Ballo joined Chelsea in January of this year from Viktoria Koln, and the Cote d’Ivoire born Austrian has made a good early impression. Comfortable in possession, the almost-17 year old has the Arjen Robben-esque gift of looking about ten years older, and was the man most likely to drive Chelsea forward to victory.
Further back, holding midfielder Clinton Mola impressed in a muscular, abrasive performance. Born in Camden, the England U18 international just seemed to be more physically developed than his peers at times, and it brought to mind memories for me of seeing a young Chuks Aneke at Arsenal bully players on the pitch. Also frankly monstrous at time was centre back Simeu. Born in Yaounde, he has played for and captained England U18s, and was a rock at the back. With a full beard, and the frame of a 25 year old boxer, it is simply incredible to realise that his is still just 16. With so much potential, these three look to be the real deal, but…
A prominent criticism of Chelsea’s Academy – and one that’s difficult to argue with – is the lack of progression from such a dominant youth system to the first team. The fact that England international Ruben Loftus-Cheek can’t get a game, whilst Kasey Palmer, Mason Mount and Nathaniel Chalobah have all had to look at other clubs (either permanently or on loan) for game time also tells a story. However much the likes of Ballo, Mola and Simeu might progress, can there ever really be a future at a club which seemingly provides so few first team opportunities to Academy graduates?
10. What’s the relevance to your non-league stuff?
The immediate goal has to be winning full-time professional contracts, and for those lucky few that already have them, progressing regularly to the U23s. Very few individuals are blessed in the way that Ryan Sessegnon, for example, are – to have the talent and disposition to play first team football at 17, but he is a shining example to those in white today. If they progress, they will play. Fulham are a renowned Academy for how they care about their players – a local partnership with Coombe School ensures that players get the educational grounding they need, as well as the footballing one.
Some will find their way out on loan to other clubs and gather experience there, whilst sadly, some will inevitably fall by the wayside. That certainly doesn’t mean the end of the road though. Just this season, my team Plymouth Argyle have signed Ashley Smith-Brown and Freddie Ladapo, from Manchester City and Crystal Palace respectively, proving that opportunities are there even if players are unable to make the grade at the highest levels.
Yet, even below that there is scope for a career for motivated players. Non-league football – my regular subject – has proven a fertile breeding ground for players to rebuild their careers in recent years. The likes of Jamie Vardy (Sheffield United Academy to Premier League winning international via Stocksbridge Park Steels) provide perfect role models to players in this position, as does Chris Smalling, who arrived at Manchester United after Fulham spotted the eighteen year old centre back at Maidstone United.
More recently, in the summer just gone, unprecedented numbers of players stepped up from non-league to Football League, with 76 players making the step up to either the Scottish or English professional game. Bruno Andrade at Lincoln City, Morgan Ferrier at Walsall and Daniel Johnson at Motherwell have hit the ground running, whilst Portsmouth’s Jamal Lowe has transformed into one of League One’s most dangerous players since his move from Hampton & Richmond Borough a few seasons back.