Friday 22nd February 2019, 1400 KO
Fulham FC U23 vs Reading FC U23
Sadly work commitments have put paid to any football watching in recent weeks, but after over a month with no football, I got back on the horse at Motspur Park, where Fulham’s second string faced off against Reading’s, in the Premier League 2 Cup. With Reading having already secured a place in the knockout stages, Fulham needed to win, and hope Birmingham failed to win their match against Colchester by more than ten goals. Essentially, it was in the junior Cottagers’ hands.
Having passed Zico Asare on the train to Motspur Park, I wondered if the young U18 skipper from the match I watched against Chelsea in October was making the step up, and on arrival found that he (along with Timmy Abraham) was. Both were named on the bench alongside Luca Ashby-Hammond and Chris Kelly for Fulham. Both sides were 9th in their respective divisions (Premier League 2 has two equivalent leagues), but Fulham started with the stronger line up. U-17 World Cup winner Steven Sessegnon, and the highly rated Harvey Elliott and Matt O’Riley all started, as did top scorer Jayden Harris. The Royals, however, were missing all three of their top scorers, in the form of Danny Loader, Ben House and Josh Barrett.
In the first half, the home side were much the better outfit, and I had been particularly looking forward to seeing Harvey Elliott in action. The local lad, signed from QPR, doesn’t even turn sixteen for another month or so, but has already made his first team debut in the EFL Cup. Still up to eight years younger than some of his peers at this level, I expected to see quality from Elliott, but also perhaps a little inconsistency and a potential fragility due to his age. By full time, his performance – including a goal and an assist – was central to Fulham’s win, and I have to say the hype was justified on the basis of what I saw. There is real potential there, and Fulham have demonstrated time and again that they are absolutely top of range when it comes to developing young talent.
Once again, George Wickens started in goal, having now signed professional forms, and made the step up to the U23s, and he was a vocal presence at the back, with the massive pairing of Mortiz Jenz and Jerome Opoku ahead of him. All three are capable on the ball, and along with right back Cody Drameh and left back Steven Sessegnon, there is a clear brief to play out from the back. In midfield, the pair of Matts – Estonian Matthias Kait, and Isleworth-born Matt O’Riley – were joined by Coombe School student Jayden Harris. With Kait providing the bedrock, Harris the engine, and O’Riley the vision, it was a midfield capable of really taking the game to Reading. Supporting the attack, Harvey Elliott and tricky Australian Tyrese Francois were providing the ammunition for front man Nicolas Santos-Clase.
In the first half, Francois and O’Riley seemed the most likely to create anything, whilst Sessegnon’s quick changes of direction left his marker chasing shadows on a number of occasions. So it was, on 19 minutes, that O’Riley – who has represented England at many levels, whilst also being eligible for Denmark and Norway – slipped a lovely disguised pass through the Reading defence, where the top-knotted Elliott was rushing in. Another England youth international, Elliott nicked a clever finish past 16-year old Myles Roberts in goal.
The second half was played out in much the same vein as the first, but with the roles reversed. Reading were now on top for much of the period, with the home side reduced to long balls out from defence, for the isolated Santos-Clase to try and hold up. He worked hard, but as he tired, the Fulham management introduced Timmy Abraham from the bench, and were almost immediately repaid. On 79 minutes, Harvey Elliott drove at his man, left back Cameron Green. The full back – signed from the highly successful Met Police Youth Academy – was having a good game, but could do nothing as Elliott drove to the byline and cut back to Abraham, who had the simplest of tasks to put the ball in an empty net.
Two-nil to Fulham was how it finished, and they progressed into the knockout stages, as Reading had already done so. For Reading, Cameron Green, Akinwale Odimayo and Oliver Pendlebury were probably the best performers, and on the Fulham side, I’ve put a little break down of each player below.
George Wickens – GK – Born in Petersfield, Wickens has already established himself as a regular U23 ‘keeper at only 17, earning a professional contract and representing England into the bargain. Wasn’t tested too many times in this match, but what he had to do, he did well.
Cody Drameh – DR – I haven’t seen the stats, but I’d be astonished if Drameh isn’t one of the fastest players in the Fulham Academy. The Dulwich-born 17 year old demonstrated his pace both in attack, and covering runs defensively, and snapped into tackles well throughout.
Moritz Jenz – DC – Signed from Tennis Borussia Berlin, Jenz plays centre back like a midfielder. It was no surprise that he averaged 85% pass completion last season, as he was happy building play from the back and formed half of a muscular centre back pairing.
Jerome Opoku – DC – Mitcham-born Opoku was the skipper today, a role he has regularly filled across the season. One of many Coombe School students in the side, at nearly 6’4 he towers over most opposition, and used that height to great effect. Composed in possession, his driving runs from the back were reminiscent of Harry Maguire for England.
Steven Sessegnon – DL – The twin brother of Ryan, Steven also wears the same shirt number, but is a very different player. A versatile defender, Steven is less direct, but has a great change of direction and displayed real pace. A frequent out ball for Wickens, both Kait and O’Riley also often looked for the Roehampton born 18 year old on the left.
Matthias Kait – DM – Signed from Levadia in Tallinn, Kait is an offensive-minded midfielder, but played more of a sitting role against Reading. The 20 year old is a full international for Estonia, and one of the oldest heads in the team.
Jayden Harris – MR – Harris was deployed on the right in this match, occasionally switching flanks with Elliott. The 19 year old from Croydon displays great stamina, and kept pressing until the final whistle.
Matt O’Riley – MC – O’Riley has received first-team minutes, and regularly trains with the senior squad. Still just 18, his composure in possession stood out, and his vision brought about the first goal for Harvey Elliott. If the worst happens and Fulham do go down, expect to see O’Riley take a more formal first team role next season.
Tyrese Francois – MC – At only 5’7 and 60kg, the British-Australian midfielder cuts a slight presence, but demonstrated his wily technique throughout. He’s feisty too, squaring up to Reading’s Pendlebury close to half time. Another who has trained with the first team, Francois played off the bench in two pre-season friendlies.
Harvey Elliott – ML – The youngest ever Fulham first team player, Elliott still isn’t even eligible for a professional contract for another 14 months. His age disadvantage made no matter here though, as Elliott was the key player, scoring the first and assisting the second.
Nicolas Santos-Clase – ST – Santos-Clase was born in Santander, and signed for Fulham as a teenager. Able to represent Spain or the Dominican Republic, Santos-Clase ran hard as the outlet, but particularly in the second half found himself quite isolated.
Luca Ashby-Hammond – GK – Wearing squad number 50, Ashby-Hammond is one of two goalkeeping brothers currently in the youth set up at Fulham, along with Taye, who is two years his senior. The England U17 international deputised for Wickens today.
Chris Kelly – MF – A 19 year old winger from Jamaica, Kelly and his family moved over from Kingston at a young age. Has played professionally in the EFL Trophy, but didn’t make it off the bench here.
Timmy Abraham – ST – The Camberwell-born teen added fresh impetus from the bench when he replaced Santos-Clase, and earned a goal for his efforts. A dead-ringer for his big brother, Abraham showed the same poacher’s positioning, but in truth would have had to work hard to miss the chance he was presented.
Zico Asare – DC – An athletic, powerful centre back from the Watford area, Asare has captained the Under 18s, but was an unused substitute on this occasion. An England U16 and U18 international, he still has six years of eligibility left at this level.
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