Fulham academy taking England by storm

Jamie McDonald

Since a recent overhaul, the Under 18s and Under 21s have gone from strength to strength.

Some say a football club can only be as good as its academy. It's a pretty thought; the brainchild of self-sufficiency. But gone are days when first elevens were borne out of a club's respective youth system. Nowadays it's all about the money, about the now.

Fulham were arguably a model of the latter, less fairytale model. We rose through the divisions under the guidance of Mohammed Al Fayed and his generous millions. There were, of course, some reputable names during those heavenly few years that were Fulham through and through.

There was Sean Davis, an unforgettably dogged midfielder who had an otherwise more technical side to his game. He went on to Tottenham Hotspur and, though he never made the 'big time', he can safely blame an injury prone career and no-one would argue. He was a fantastic player.

Zat Knight, perhaps not the most glamorous of defenders, came through our academy after signing from Rushall Olympic. Without obligation to pay the Non-League side a transfer fee, we sent them thirty tracksuits as a gesture of goodwill and then nurtured him into a player of Premier League standard. No mean feat.

But beyond them, the only names that linger on the lips of Fulham fans from our top-level era are the likes of Louis Saha, Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey. All fine players, but all foreign imports.

While we were bringing in these fine footballing specimens, we were churning out players of the calibre of Elliot Omozusi and Elvis Hammond. We were hardly setting the youth leagues alight.

But there was, at least, slight progression under Roy Hodgson. There were, again, no huge players of note but Chris Smalling can certainly be pencilled in as a distinct success. It was no surprise that the best talent to emerge under Hodgson would be a defender - he encouraged a stable, rigid formation and only introduced flair when it was without risk.

This meant the wisdom of Roy could rub off on the likes of Smalling but would, more than likely, pass over the heads of the more technically gifted players we could have produced. Danny Hoesen, for example, could have been huge for Fulham, but is now proving his worth at Ajax in the Netherlands.

If we jump to the present, though, the Fulham academy is looking like a well-oiled machine. Martin Jol, an advocate of free-flowing football, has overseen the development of this side of the club and it has already began to pay dividends.

We've seen Kerim Frei bemuse a Chelsea back line, we've seen Alex Kacaniklic establish himself as a crafty left winger and we've even seen Matthew Briggs, intermittently, show himself as a worthy full back.

There are probably many aspects that have seen this sudden upturn in fortunes for this previously derelict academy. The installation of Huw Jennings as Academy Director probably had a lot to do with it. He knows a good player when he sees one - Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale are among his previous proteges - and he knows what needs doing to make them world class.

For all this upward momentum, though, we're not yet at a stage where we can brag and boast, unfortunately. The Under-18s currently have a 100% record in the Phase 2 Elite Group having just breezed past Bolton Wanderers with a 4-1 victory. It's worth noting that the 'elite' description is befitting of the level they are playing at.

The Under-21s could be considered somewhat less consistent but, with two wins, two draws and two defeats, sit strongly in fourth in their similarly elite league setup.

This small divide between the youth sides - and I must stress how small it is - highlights just how quickly the academy is being overhauled. The current Under 21 setup were on the cusp of the change and are only just reaping the benefits. Players like Mesca, Ryan Williams and Dan Burn have a potentially huge future ahead of them.

The Under 18s have been able to take in the wonders of a Category One academy from the start and are showing various other outfits - some particularly notable for having strong youth networks - just where we stand. This season, they have battered Middlesbrough - a notoriously strong academy side - 6-0, Chelsea 5-0 and have overturned Liverpool away from home.

It all paints a promising future. Players like Noe Baba, Cauley Woodrow, Muamer Tankovic and Moussa Dembele are already being touted as world-beaters, in spite of their tender age.

Of course, it will still be a matter of years before we see their affect on the first team but when it happens, you get the feeling that it could be cosmic.

For Fulham have decided to take strides in the right direction and now, with the foundations in place, we could well take English football by storm.

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