Deserved Champions

Thursday 4 April 2013 13:00 caught up with Academy Director Huw Jennings following the Under-19s' triumphant return from the Dr Pepper Dallas Cup.

First of all Huw, congratulations on the Under-19s’ success at the Dr Pepper Dallas Cup. Prior to the team’s departure you set clear intentions of going out there and doing well – you must be extremely pleased?

We’re delighted with the outcome, and I think the boys were deserved champions. As we know, the tournament itself features a variety of teams from across the globe and many different styles of football. To come out on top is, of course, especially pleasing and is a continuation of the excellent work that has taken place in recent years. We know how well these lads can play, so we were quietly confident that we could be successful in Dallas. But tournament football can be unpredictable, you can never be sure. So to play so well, and consistently, was testament to the group – the players and the staff both on and off the field.

You’ve been very complimentary, too, on the way our boys conducted themselves away from the pitch. How important was that to see?

It’s extremely important, because they were out there representing the Club and, as the Barclays Premier Academy champions, England as well. From start to finish, they were a real credit. Twelve days is a long time to take a big group away, and it has to be said, the management of that was very smooth. We kept them busy when they weren’t playing and training, and I think all that were involved will take a lot away with them. We paid a really uplifting visit to the Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, where the boys did tremendously well. It’s fair to say that the group bonded, and throughout, showed their spirit and determination both physically and mentally. I’d also like to pay thanks and tribute to the staff that made the trip, and also to our Academy Administration Co-ordinator Charlotte Bellamy who accepted the massive undertaking of preparing our trip – their support was very much appreciated.

The team turned heads en route to the Final and won many admirers along the way. Do you think some underestimated how good this group of players are?

I think that, going into the tournament, people were possibly more familiar with the style and skill of the Brazilian and Mexican teams, then of course you had Manchester United in there as well. I actually think we [as a nation] underestimate how high the levels are in this country. When you face the likes of Coritiba and Fluminense, you tend to think ‘wow, it’s a team from Brazil’. But the reality is that they should be thinking ‘crikey, we’re playing a team from England’. I’ve said before, that in this country we have young players that are as good as any anywhere in the world. Perhaps we need to remember that?

The 5-1 victory over the very highly-rated Kashiwa Reysol in the Final certainly underlined that quality, though. 

The Japanese were very good, particularly in the way that they moved and used the ball. Technically, they were very impressive. Kashiwa knocked out Manchester United, which was no mean feat, and controlled most of their matches on the way to the Final. When you consider the fact that they had longer to recover from their Semi-Final, and unlike us, they didn’t have to play extra-time and then take part in a penalty shootout, the 5-1 win was doubly pleasing. They had a lot of talent, but so do we. I think they were shocked by our energy and ability to win the ball back, and on top of our own ability to move the ball and create chances, they struggled to find a response.

And in terms of the players’ personal development, how do you measure success from the trip to Dallas?

Regardless of the final outcome, it was about their development and how they progress. They can certainly use the experience as a means to helping further their personal career, and in demonstrating that they can cope in tournament football will undoubtedly stand them in good stead. It’s invaluable, and something that you just can’t replicate in domestic matches and training. Throughout, we showed great resilience and even won a penalty shootout – something that’s not synonymous with English teams. They recovered exceptionally well in a short space of time, and coped admirably with a variety of different pitches and contrasting weather conditions. Everything they faced, they dealt with.

You set the players various challenges; you wanted the older boys to lead by example and the younger ones to show what they could do. Neither group disappointed did they?

In putting together an Under-19 squad for the tournament, we had to mix some of the younger players from the Under-21 group with the majority of our Under-18s. So quite a few hadn’t trained or played alongside one another before, but very quickly, a real team spirit and camaraderie was forged. The spine of our team was very strong, and I think a perfect example of leading by example was our captain Jack Grimmer. His performances and leadership was immaculate, and I’m sure the younger players learned a lot from playing alongside him. When we initially brought Jack down from Aberdeen, we did so having recognised that he had real leadership qualities – something that doesn’t come naturally to every player. He was one of the standout performers, and we were thrilled with his contribution. Stephen Arthurworrey did well alongside Jack in the heart of our defence, and after two knee operations he’s starting to get back to where he wants to be. At the other end, Cauley Woodrow also impressed, scoring six goals and at times, playing like a Trojan horse in the way that he chased lost causes. The younger players made an impact too, and the likes of Solomon Sambou, Emerson Hyndman, Jordan Evans and George Williams certainly played their part too. The youngest of the group, Marek Rodak, who is still a schoolboy, also deserves a special mention. He speaks little English, and has only recently arrived at the Academy, but made a number of key saves throughout and made a very important penalty stop in the Semi-Final.

Adding international success to the recent domestic achievements certainly bodes well for the future. The hard work continues doesn’t it?

We can’t overvalue the success of this tournament, as great an honour as it was, because, at the end of the day, it’s about getting players into the First Team. It’s also something that we need to demonstrate over time, which we are certainly starting to do following the league success in 2011 and 2012. We do think that, in due course, we will have players ready and pushing for a place in the thoughts of Martin Jol – which is very encouraging. That said, make no mistake, the success in Dallas will be a big part of that continuation. International tournaments play a big part in the development of almost every player in our Academy. In turning our attentions back to the domestic programme, both the Under-18s and Under-21s still have quite a few matches to play and both want to finish their respective seasons strongly. Steve [Wigley] and Kit [Symons] will make sure that the boys return to their day jobs and concentrate on what they now have to do.

The success of the Dallas Cup has naturally led some to enquire about the possibility of Fulham taking part in the NextGen Series – which for those that aren’t familiar with the format is a tournament for the best youth teams in Europe.

To be honest, I think we’re slightly cautious of taking on too much in terms of competition. The NextGen Series is fantastic, and I’m sure there are many benefits, but at the same time I’d be worried that it would also have a negative effect. I would be a little anxious that our players would miss out on crucial training as a result of the travelling. What’s more likely, is our support of adding a European element to the Under-21 programme, I think that’s something that would work best for us. But we will have to wait and see. I did watch the NextGen Series with interest, though, as three English teams made the Semi-Finals. Aston Villa beat Chelsea to be crowned champions, with Arsenal finishing fourth following the Third Place Play-Off defeat against Sporting Lisbon. That reinforces the opinion that many share with myself, that English teams are well and truly on the march in academy football.

Images by Matthew Visinsky.