Fulham’s Under-18s warm up for the second half of the season by heading to Germany for the Sparkasse & VGH Cup – a five-a-side indoor tournament – which kicks off on Thursday evening. We caught up with Under-18s Manager Steve Wigley ahead of the trip.
This is the fourth year that the Under-18s have taken part in the Sparkasse & VGH Cup – it’s become a fixture of the Academy’s season hasn’t it?
Yes it has. The concept is brilliant and as we don’t have indoor football in England it’s a great and new experience for the boys. We only really take part in the FA Youth Cup, so hopefully this format will help us prepare for that. The atmosphere in the venues is amazing and you can get up to 400 people watching. We’ll play a few German regional teams, and we have also been paired in the same group as Borussia Monchengladbach and Hamburger SV. Obviously the game with the latter will bring back memories of Fulham’s magnificent run in the UEFA Europa League a few years back.
Some people may think it’s unusual for the boys to be playing in an indoor five-a-side tournament mid-season?
Five-a-side football is very popular in Germany and it’s a great way of creating a tournament mentality. A lot of other countries take this type of football very seriously, and it has been a very useful tool in terms of developing their young players – it’s something that they’ve done for a very long time. The Sparkasse Cup has been running for a long time now; in fact, Sascha Riether played in it when he was younger. A lot of Germany’s top players will have done too, so it’s proved very beneficial. If you look at Germany’s record at the World Cup and in bringing young players through, we would be stupid to ignore this. Tournament football is good for team spirit, and five-a-side football helps develop individual skill, ball control, first-time passing and getting yourself out of tight areas. It’s a very technical game.
For you, what effect do you hope those benefits will have on the team over the course of the season?
We will use the tournament to prepare for the second half of the season. We will train in the morning and play in the evenings. All of the squad will go to Goettingen to develop team play and togetherness. After the Christmas break it’s great to get the boys all together and concentrating on football. In recent years, we’ve done very well at this competition, and when coming back we have pushed on domestically. Momentum is so important in football.
It’s a different style of football, of course, with the emphasis on close control, technique, individual skill and team-work – all of which are facets of the game that fit well into the Academy’s philosophy?
It is, and they are elements of the game that we try and instil in our players from a very young age. We like to play good football, and we do encourage our boys to express themselves and to be comfortable on the ball. We play lots of small-sided games in the Academy and this tournament is an extension of that, but obviously with an emphasis on winning.
It doesn’t do any harm either to take the boys out of their usual environment, and get them playing tournament football does it?
No, that’s right. It can only help their development, both as individuals and as a team. As I’ve said, the tournament is a great opportunity to create team spirit. The boys will be together for five days in a good working environment. For a coach, it’s always interesting to see them in a different environment and how they react to that. They need to adjust to different things, like sharing a room, living in a hotel, taking care of themselves, managing their downtime appropriately and, ultimately, learning about new cultures.
You play in the Fourth Round of the FA Youth Cup next week. What are your thoughts on that game with Arsenal? On paper, it looks like a very exciting encounter?
It will be, and to be honest, we probably couldn’t have drawn tougher opposition. Arsenal are renowned for producing good young players and teams at all age levels. Like us, they have a certain way of playing and as you say, on paper, that makes for an exciting game. We know what we’re capable of though, and we have ambitions of doing well in the FA Youth Cup. We know that we’ll have to be at our best, but when we are, we’re a match for any team. It will be a challenge, but one we’re looking forward to.