I’m enjoying a couple of days off on the south coast with my missus and decided not to journey back to Stamford Bridge for the second leg of the Youth Cup Final. I could say that I was still angry about the weak-kneed way we left the Premier, but the truth is the game was on ITV 4 and I preferred to watch it in a comfy armchair.
The Fulham youth side have won their division championship two years running and are reckoned one of the best in the country. Huw Jennings was recruited from Southampton’s Academy. He was the man that discovered Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Adam Llalana Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the latest on the production line, Luke Shaw. Mohammed al Fayed, in appointing Alastair Mackintosh, made a productive academy one of his targets. It’s a highly competitive area with the best youth players widely known and sought. You have to know the tricks: for example, the successful Manchester United side of 1992 got round the one hour travel rule by using a helicopter to convey the players.
Some of the Fulham players have already made their first team debuts – then again, most who wear a white shirt have this season – as 41 players were tried … Moussa Dembele and Patrick Roberts have debuted. Judging by yesterday ‘s performance, they both will be playing regularly next season. Dembele is a big lad and I thought a natural scorer. However, in a defining moment that would have given us a 3 goal aggregate lead over Chelsea when Roberts, after a typical fine dribble, struck the post the ball got stuck under Dembele’s feet and he made a hash of a simple chance. In midfield the enforcer Samba and Emerson Hyndman, an American, who drives forward, caught the eye. I thought the central defenders were pacey and good on the ball, but 5 goals were conceded. The kids have learned one bad habit from the first team – the conceding of later goals, 3 in the last 15 minutes, to lose 3-5.
I was impressed by their technique, but before you get excited that British players can now emulate say the Dutch in control and passing, I have to report that a good youth side is as diverse in nationality as the first team. Making that crucial assessment as to whether any of these players will have careers at the top, or indeed middle or bottom, is never easy. Money can affect their heads, the wrong lifestyle choices that affect any young person made, or they may simply not train on. One of the big boys might offer £3m for Roberts which, with the loss of the Sky income (£40m) even with parachute payment, we might have to accept. He may never get a game because of the talent ahead, and the managers won’t risk him and his talent may be as squandered as the money he earns. So I hope he is advised to stay on and establish himself.
In the end this was the third disappointing final I have watched, but with definite pride that one al Fayed mission has been accomplished, albeit in a different era and chairman.