Let's talk about young players. The players you read about in the academy. The ones who make the bench every once in awhile. The ones who maybe get a few minutes of run out at the end of the game, or a start early in the league cup. It's easy to fall in love with these players. They may never live up to the hype we place on them, but the hope they generate can be intoxicating.
This may be a blog about Fulham, but I'm also a baseball fan. My favorite athlete as an adult is Felix Hernandez. It's easy to like him because he's really, really great; but that's not why he's my favorite. It was 2004. The Mariners had just collapsed into an awful team after about eight years of being good. When a team is that bad (they lost almost 100 games that year), you look for something positive to latch onto. I started reading about this seventeen year old kid ripping up the minor leagues. He was quickly dubbed "King Felix."
That could have been the end of it of course. Young kids flame out all the time. He didn't however. He more than lived up to the hype and has been one of the best pitchers in baseball for a decade. I got to witness him throw one of only twenty three perfect games in baseball history. It's all made more special because of the connection I feel with him that developed since I'd been following him for so long.
It's very easy to fall in love with the next big thing. A young player's warts can be overlooked, because they'll obviously improve right? It's easy to project great things on them. But how often does it work out? If you go by the recent history of Fulham, not very often.
Remember Matthew Briggs? The youngest player to start a Premier League game. He's still only twenty four. He was supposed to be anchoring a Fulham defense by now. I remember building around him on FIFA 2011. He never lived up to the hype though, and now he's playing in League One.
Then there's Kerim Frei. He was young. He was exciting. He ran rampant through Chelsea in 2012 and won man of the match. Big things were expected. But his development stalled. He was quickly out of favor. And now he plies his trade in Turkey.
Or how about Alex Kacaniklic? Being a full international at age twenty one and playing well in the Premier League. There were high hopes for him. Now? He's just a guy. He's a solid player and good to have around, but you'd hardly build a squad around him. And now that he's twenty four, he's lost the sheen that can be projected onto a young player.
It hurts to talk about, but we need to bring up Patrick Roberts and Emerson Hyndman as well. Patrick Roberts has the talent to be world class. I spent so much time watching his highlights and waiting for him to make an impact with the first team, but he was gone before it could happen. And with the history of Manchester City, I'm not expecting Roberts to ever reach his full potential. Like Roberts, I followed Hyndman's progress through the academy and felt a connection because we're both Americans. I was ecstatic when he played and played well last year. But now he's out of favor and refusing to sign a new contract. We'll probably never see him play for the first team again.
Which brings us to Moussa Dembele. I remember his signing to the academy in 2012. At first, it was just fun to have a new Moussa Dembele after we lost the first one. Then he started tearing up things at the youth level and it was exciting. It was especially fun to see confused fans thinking the other Dembele had ended up back at Fulham when they saw tweets about him. He seemed like he might play a big role last year, but did not. Then rumors started that he wanted out. It was reported that he didn't want to sign a new contract. I prepared myself for him to follow the Hyndman and Roberts path. But then something different happened.
Dembele started playing. And he started playing well. He's scored six times in fifteen appearances this year. He's scored five league goals in ten starts. He's only nineteen. He has a chance to be special. He also (if reports are to be believed) is on the verge of signing a new four year contract.
Now I'm not naive enough to think that Dembele will stay at Fulham forever. If he keeps up this amount of growth, someone will come knocking. If Fulham stay mired in the Championship, he definitely will want to move on to bigger and better things. But getting a year or two with him can be special. A young kid from the academy becomes a first team star before becoming an international star elsewhere. That's a great connection to have with a player.
I've had a lot of favorite Fulham players over the years. First there was Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra. Then there was Clint Dempsey and Mousa Dembele. I struggled to ignore the warts and love Bryan Ruiz and Dimitar Berbatov. They were all good players. I enjoyed them all, but Moussa Dembele has a chance to be the guy I think of when I think about Fulham in the future. The academy product who came good. The great young hope who actually delivered on his promise.
Of course, it still might not happen. He could be a flash in the pan. He could move in the next window. He might not sign that new contract after all; but right now I'm filled with hope and optimism. Young players tend to do that to you. No matter how many times it doesn't work out, the next one will always be better. If Dembele keeps this up though, the next one will have to be a whole lot better to replace him in my heart.