Purely Academic

Thursday 9 May 2002

It's all very well being able to go out and buy £11million strikers, but the real life-blood of any football Club is its ability to find and produce its own young talent. Financial considerations aside, home grown players bring qualities to a team that take years to reproduce without them, and the affinity that builds up between the fans and one of their own is a very special one.

Manchester United's recent success has been built largely on a nucleus of players who have come up through their ranks. They may all have outstanding individual skills, but as a group they bring a resilience and a team ethos that is difficult to recreate solely with players brought in from other Clubs.

Ever since Mohamed Al Fayed took over at Fulham, the media have focussed on the money spent bringing Premiership football to Craven Cottage. It's an easy story to write, and there are a lot of journalists out there desperate for the wheels to come off so that they can really get stuck in. But what has been largely ignored is the investment into the infrastructure of the Club, and, especially, into the development of young players.

Fulham are in the process of putting together one of the finest youth set-ups in the game. This is an area where the rewards will not be seen for many years, but if the progress made so far is anything to go by then the future for the Club looks very bright indeed.

On Wednesday of this week, Fulham put out a reserve team squad that was made up of fourteen Academy players, and were unlucky to take only a point away from Stamford Bridge after largely outplaying a strong Chelsea side.

Fulham Today caught up with Academy Director Steve Kean to see just how good things really are looking at Fulham.

Steve, Wednesday's reserve team game against Chelsea consisted largely of youngsters. That's a remarkable achievement...

"Jean Tigana likes to keep his first-team squad quite large in order to protect his players. Depending on how the fixtures fall, this quite often presents a tremendous opportunity for the young players to show what they can do. This week has been a good example; to give himself plenty of options for Saturday, the manager has kept the first-team squad together - it's an important game with the InterToto place still to be won and a top-half finish still available, which was one of the objectives for the season.

"So there has been plenty of representation by the young players in the reserves this year, and what it meant against Chelsea was that there were nine players starting the game and five substitutes on the bench, all from the Academy. Apart from goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann and Chris Coleman, the whole squad had come up through the Academy and that's a very positive thing for Fulham Football Club.

"With the exception of Calum Willock who also came through the Academy, all the players are under eighteen. This is an absolutely tremendous thing, and the fact that they've all got next year to continue to develop is a very exciting prospect."

It must be very rewarding to see the result of all the hard work put in this year?

"It goes back even further than this year. When the first-year boys came in two years ago, we worked constantly on their technique, made sure that the building blocks of their game, their first touch, was in place, and worked hard on their ball mastery. In the second year they started to work with fitness coach Roger Propos on the physical side, doing gym-work, increasing their aerobic capacity, but always working on their technique at the same time.

"So we felt it was going to be a good test on Wednesday. In the last Academy Under 19 game we played against Chelsea, we beat them 4-0, and we didn't really feel that we'd been tested at all; it was a very comfortable victory. So yesterday the very same group with the exception of Hahnemann, Coleman and Willock took on a much more experienced side at reserve level.

"It was a good test for us. Could we still keep the ball? Could we still pass it? And it was a great opportunity for the boys to play at a ground like Stamford Bridge."

Was this game a good indication of how well things are going at Academy level?

"Two years ago, we were just trying to play catch-up. It's not until you get into the top-flight yourselves that you can start to attract the boys who might previously have gone to Chelsea or Tottenham or Arsenal. When you look through the international squads there are very few boys who are from First Division sides - they're all at Premiership Clubs.

"So it was difficult for us in year one to attract the top boys, but we did very well with the boys we did have and we were able to improve them. But this year, at under fourteen and under fifteen levels we're in the market place for all the really special players that the other top Clubs are chasing.

"That's so exciting for us to be able to compete for this sort of talent. If we can get them in, then we are convinced that the way we work can improve them technically, tactically and physically, and then they've got a great chance of really making it to the very top."

And the development of young talent is a very important part of Jean Tigana's philosophy?

"He's a builder, a developer. I've not worked with any other manager who's been a developer like he is. Usually coaches are result driven, because if they lose a lot of games they might be out of a job. But the manager here is different; he cares about building the Club and improving players.

"He's obviously very successful at winning games as well, but it's unusual to have a manager who has actually got a development mentality. The ethos through the whole Club because of him, is to build, build.

"In a few years time, hopefully we'll see the fruition of all the work going on now, all the technical work, the talent identification, and we'll be in the position of someone like Manchester United where they've got the likes of Beckham, Scholes, Butt, the Neville brothers who have formed the backbone of the team."

And there's something special about when a Club brings through its own players...

"Local boys - that's so important. The current rules are that until they leave school the boys can't live more than ninety minutes from the training ground. So if all the boys are local, the fans will feel a greater affinity towards them. It's almost like he's one of them.

"The foreign players who have come in have been superb, and that has lifted the level of the British players, but it's not the same as having a player who has been at the Club since he was a kid.

"The way we work here has come from Jean and Christian and Roger. Twenty years ago French football was at rock bottom and it was decided that they needed to change the way they did things technically. So we've taken that philosophy, and it's the mastery of the ball that becomes all-important.

"If you look at the under nines and the under tens training, there's very little pressure from the coach. They get thousands of touches of the ball, and all the coach is doing is looking to correct any mistakes that he sees. There's very little static coaching - the exercise is set up and the coach will pick up individuals as and when he needs to - moving a shoulder here, changing the position of a standing foot there - tiny details that the player will take on board while the others are still practising."

So things are looking very good for the future?

"I believe that some of the players who are coming through now are looking very, very special, and there's no reason why, if we continue to work along the lines that we have done, that we can't carry on producing that level of talent that will hold this Club in good stead for many years to come. I think the future for Fulham fans looks very bright indeed."

For those fans who can remember when the Club was famous for producing such talent as the likes of Johnny Haynes, Alan Mullery, Rodney Marsh and Paul Parker this is a mouth-watering prospect indeed. This isn't going to happen overnight, but exciting times are ahead there's no doubt about it. Just watch this space!