Friday 6th November 2020, 1900 KO
Fulham FC U23 vs Stoke City FC U23
After almost two years on the photography rota for the Fulham Academy sides, I finally got my first opportunity to catch a game at Craven Cottage on Friday. With Premier League 2 rules stating that each club must host at least three league matches at their home stadium, it stood to reason that I’d get there eventually, but it wasn’t until the new lockdown that this opportunity arose.
With football across the country subject to postponements, and fans still not allowed in at those levels that are continuing, I am of course incredibly grateful that my job as a photographer affords me access.
Fulham and Stoke City play in the second tier of the Premier League 2 system, which is comprised of the 26 clubs who hold Category One Academy status. At the start of play, both sides sat in the bottom three of the Premier League 2 Division 2, with Stoke 11th and Fulham 12th, but joint on points. This is consistent with the previous season for Fulham, who finished 10th in 2019/20 (though their U18s did win the league), yet the side from the Potteries are well below last term’s levels, where they finished 4th. Although a third of the season has been played, the league is still very tight, with only seven points between these two sides and Middlesbrough who are top. On Monday night Stoke recorded a 4-1 victory over Reading (who lost 4-0 to Fulham yet are 5th in the league) with a hat trick from 28 year old right back Moritz Bauer as the Potters seek to put him in the shop window for January, whilst Fulham lost 3-0 away to Wolves.
The visitors have seen a fair bit of change from last season’s squad, as is usual at this level, with players either making the step up to the first team, or moving on altogether, as the new crop comes through. Of particular note, last season’s top scorer Gabriel Kyeremateng, has moved to Switzerland’s FC Thun. Indeed, the Ghanaian/German national is still the top scorer for this season despite his departure, with four goals in three matches at the start of the season. Also departed include Julien Ngoy (KAS Eupen), Oliver Shenton (Chorley) and Lasse Sorensen on a loan to MK Dons.
Fulham have also had a summer and early season of transition, with their top goalscorer also departing. After signing from Chelsea, Martell Taylor-Crossdale scored five in fifteen appearances, however this summer he was allowed to leave for Colchester United on a free transfer, where he has since played a total of 24 minutes. Commanding centre back Jerome Opoku and striker Timmy Abraham have both been loaned out to League One Plymouth Argyle, while Cody Drameh was sold for a six figure fee to fellow Premier League side Leeds United. The hosts have however been buoyed by the introduction of a host of last season’s successful U18s, such as Fabio Carvalho and Luca Murphy, though Jay Stansfield (who was the top scorer at that level nationally) still has another season at the younger age group.
The match started with a well-observed two minute silence, and saw both captains lay a wreath in the centre circle, as the two clubs remembered those who have given their lives in service of their country.
Both sides fielded starting XIs with a smattering of experienced players, with Fulham giving minutes to Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen, whilst Stoke included Moritz Bauer, Kevin Wimmer and Thibaud Verlinden (15 appearances for Bolton Wanderers last season).
It was the hosts who got off to the better start, and had three decent chances inside the first five minutes. First, Ryan de Havilland struck a rasping drive over the crossbar, and then French-Ivorian striker Jean-Pierre Tiehi twice tested visiting ‘keeper Nathan Broome. First, Tiehi struck from the right of the box, which Broome saved, but with five minutes played, the Paris born forward rounded the Stoke goalie, only to see his finish blocked by the recovering Potters defender.
Stoke also had early chances, with Ethan Varian and Thibaud Verlinden both forcing Luca Ashby-Hammond into saves in the first quarter of an hour. However, it was the Whites who broke the deadlock, with a goal made in Wimbledon and finished in New South Wales. A neat clipped ball from local lad de Havilland found Tyrese Francois stealing in at the back post, and the Australian winger – with Fulham since his family moved to the UK in 2013 – struck his first of the season to put Fulham ahead.
The lead lasted a full minute (just) as Stoke went almost straight up the other end and levelled. Adam Porter, last season’s Premier League Scholar of the Year, teed up strike partner Christian Norton, who turned, and buried his shot in the corner. Shortly after that, Fulham almost went ahead again, Stefan Johansen – who along with McDonald is not currently in Fulham’s 25 man Premier League squad – dragged a presentable chance wide despite beating Broome. Fortunately, he was offside anyway.
On half an hour, Fulham’s summer arrival from Paris Saint-Germain – Ziyad Larkeche – strode forward from left back and tried his luck with a sweet hit from twenty yards, but Broome reacted well to tip over. Broome was forced into action five minutes later to thwart de Havilland as well, but in truth, it was a half of few clear cut chances, with Stoke’s defence, including Lewis Macari (grandson of Lou) acquitting themselves well.
And it was a similar story in the second half, despite the Belgian U19 international Thibaud Verlinden testing Ashby-Hammond on 48 minutes. Broome was then forced into action again as he reacted well to tip a Tiehi header over the bar. For the next twenty minutes both sides probed, but there was little goalmouth action.
The next real moment of note was another good bit of play by Verlinden around 70 minutes, as he skipped past right back Luca Murphy, and struck wide of Ashby-Hammond’s goal. The winger from Brussels is part of the Stoke City first team squad this season, and was the most effective player on the pitch today. At the age of 21, and with the likes of Tyrese Campbell making inroads into the Potters’ first team, it could be the time for Verlinden to start making more of an impression on the Michael O’Neil’s squad.
The other player who caught the eye here was Nathan Broome, and he made another smart save to prevent Terry Ablade putting Fulhead ahead on 77 minutes. The Finnish 18 year old has already been on the fringes of the national team, and he came on to try and stretch the game, but having beaten the offside trap, he was stymied by Broome, who signed from Manchester City in 2018.
Stoke were certainly having the lions share of possession, but Broome had certainly been the busier ‘keeper, yet on 81 minutes, it was the visitors who took a lead they would hold until the whistle. Intense pressure from Stoke resulted in a series of corners, and eventually they told, as defender William Forrester rose highest and planted an unstoppable header into the far corner.
For Fulham, this was a fifth loss on the bounce, and even with Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen, they didn’t have enough to establish themselves on the midfield battle. For vast chunks of the second half, they were pinned back into their own half, with Tiehi and later Ablade both quite isolated.
It should be noted that a lot of Fulham’s more creative talents were missing from this squad, with the likes of Fabio Carvalho, Sylvester Jasper and Ben Davis all missing for one reason or another. However, a home match against the side one place above them will certainly have been a match they’d targeted for three points. As it is, this result leaves the Whites second bottom, three points above Burnley. Who are up next, on the 23rd.
Connor McAvoy was probably the most impressive performer from a Fulham perspective, whilst Jayden Harris was a driving presence in midfield. Unfortunately, Tyrese Francois was an injury casualty after around an hour – he pulled up with what looked suspiciously like a hamstring issue whilst chasing the ball.
For Stoke, it moves them up to 8th, and their next match is also eminently winnable, against Aston Villa. Nathan Broome was highly impressive in goal, and Adam Porter was a dangerous presence, often dropping deep – sometimes as far as his own D – to collect the ball. Ethon Varian, an Irish midfielder on loan to Nantwich Town last season, was also a composed presence in midfield, whilst the defence made it very difficult for Fulham to get Larkeche and Murphy around the back as they like to, so credit to full backs Moritz Bauer and Edward Jones for that.
Man of the match, for me, was Thibaud Verlinden, who was at the heart of all Stoke’s positive action in the final third.