The roll call of those Kerim Frei has already scorched is impressive. In three brushes with Chelsea over his inaugural senior season, the young winger has given two European Cup winners in Paulo Ferreira and Jose Bosingwa the runaround while, in the third meeting between the teams, it was Branislav Ivanovic’s turn to be left gasping in his opponent’s vapour trail. Frei merely smiles when recalling the right-backs he has left dazed and confused. “Not bad going,” he says, though the impression lingers that others will soon be joining the list.
Fulham have unearthed a gem in their Austrian-born teenager. The midfielder already feels as if he has been fast-tracked through the system, the jaw-dropping impression made with the under-18s having thrust him into first-team contention within a year of signing professional terms at the club. Last summer he would have pinched himself at the prospect of any game time with Martin Jol’s team yet, a year on, he is digesting 25 senior appearances, including six Premier League starts.
“This season has been a huge surprise to me,” he says. “Last summer I wouldn’t have even thought I would be anywhere near playing in the first-team, but I have had chances. To have played so many senior games is incredible, and I’ve learned from those experiences: to fight as a team, play your part, help each other. These are qualities I need.”
Learning those attributes required to thrive in the top flight is a lengthy process. The raw skill is evident already. He was arguably man of the match in two of the three derbies against Chelsea, but did end up claiming one bottle of sponsors’ Champagne, which was collected on the 18-year-old’s behalf by his captain at the time, Danny Murphy, in a post-match television interview. “That’s going in my gallery back home,” he says, even if he is speaking figuratively given he is still currently living in digs. “I’m keeping it, not drinking it. My strengths have always been getting at people, trying to get beyond them and to make something happen. That’s what I did in the junior teams, and what I try in the first-team now.
“I remember the nerves ahead of the Carling Cup match at Chelsea, but confidence comes even from the first touch you have of the ball. If you start well, maybe make a good pass, and show a bit of what you can do, it helps so much. Start with a mistake and you can feel your confidence go down, but I got into that game and enjoyed it. From then on, really, I’ve felt more at ease. Winning that man of the match award was special, and I will treasure it. I don’t have a lot of mementos to put in that gallery at the moment… I’ve not even had time to collect an opponent’s shirt.”
Defenders may be queuing up to claim his No21 in the years ahead. What makes Frei’s progress all the more impressive is the reality that he is a youngster excelling some way from home. Born in Fledkirch, Austria, to a Turkish father and a Moroccan mother, but raised in Switzerland, he is making his name in London with his parents visiting only once or twice a month. Perhaps, given the international nature of his up-bringing, it is only natural that he should be shining abroad.
Leaving Grasshopper Zurich, the club who had nurtured him, was a leap into the unknown. “But if you want to be a bigger player, and if you want to make something out of your life, you have to try,” says Frei. “You can’t be afraid of anything. And now it seems as if it was the right choice for me. I’ve learned from watching the likes of Damien Duff and Mousa Dembele, and from speaking to them. They advise, telling me when to do this or do that, when to dribble and when to pass, and you can only improve if you take what they say on board. You can only improve by listening to them.”