This weekend saw Fulham win the Under-16 Premier League International Cup for the second consecutive year.
Managed by Academy coaches Kevin Betsy and Colin Omogbehin, the young Whites successfully emerged from a qualifying stage to reach the final tournament at Liverpool’s Academy, where a series of strong displays across 50-minute matches saw them retain the trophy.
Speaking to fulhamfc.com, Betsy said: “We had to qualify for this event from a group with Chelsea, Southampton and Brighton. The top team and the best runners-up from each region went through, so we came top of the group to qualify, and Southampton also qualified as best-runners up.
“The Premier League then invites four international teams for the final tournament and spreads them out across the groups. We drew PSV, Liverpool and Stoke in our group, and in the first game against PSV on Friday afternoon we won 2-0, with Matt O’Riley scoring two goals.
“In the second game on Saturday we played Liverpool and won 2-1, and in the third we beat Stoke 3-1. All the group games were tough, against some very good opposition who had different styles of play and different tactical organisation. But we managed to come out of the group on nine points.”
That put Fulham within two games of glory, and they comfortably saw of the challenges that stood in their way.
“We drew Southampton in the Semi-Finals and we managed to win that 4-0 having played very well,” Betsy stated. “It was probably one of our best performances.
“Liverpool was also a good display but Southampton gave us a different challenge tactically as they defended in a deep block, and the boys produced an outstanding intelligent display.
“Then in the Final we played Reading, who had seen off Arsenal on penalties after drawing 0-0 in the other Semi, and we beat them 3-0.
“We scored 14 goals and only conceded two in the tournament. And of those we did let in, one was a penalty and one was a direct free-kick, so our defending in open play was very positive and there were some exceptional performances from all the individuals within the group.
“To retain the title when you go to a prestigious international finals, where a lot of top teams are competing, is a phenomenal achievement. Quite a few of our boys played and won it last year, and they were well complemented by the new lads who came in. They all did tremendously well to retain the title and show the level of our players within the Academy.”
While the former Fulham forward was full of praise for the efforts of his team as a group, there were two players – from the same family incidentally – who were awarded individual honours.
“Ryan Sessegnon won Attacker of the Tournament,” Betsy revealed. “He was the best attacker there, which was fantastic for him, and his twin brother Steven was named best defender. They’ve both been with us since the Under-9s and they’ve both played numerous positions during their development in that time.
“So those were two excellent performances which were recognised by the organisers, but there were outstanding performances from all of the boys. We had quite a few Under-14s and 15s playing who did extremely well – it was a real collective effort.”
He continued: “I said to the boys that as coaches – Colin and myself – we weren’t overly placing importance on winning the tournament. For us it was about the style of play and the manner of our conduct on and off the pitch – both of which were outstanding.
“Before the Semi-Final we relayed these messages to the boys and said, ‘We don’t care if you win. Although of course we want you to win because you’re great kids and your style of play and manner in which you perform is outstanding.’
“If we win the tournament then fantastic, but in terms of the long-term perspective, there’s positive signs that individuals are developing and learning, even without winning a trophy. But to top it off they pulled off the achievement, which was great for them.”
Betsy also played tribute to the backroom staff who represented the Whites in Liverpool.
“I must mention the staff, we had a fantastic group,” he said. “Even before the tournament there’s lots of planning and preparation that go into such an event.
“Colin won this tournament last year with YDP Coach Dan Thomas as well, so his experience was invaluable this time around, and great credit must go to our Goalkeeping Coach Adam Skinner - the number of goals we conceded is testament to that.
“Charlotte Bellamy in admin does a great job with the organisation and logistics, and our transport manager Steve Garman was fantastic in organising the travelling up there.
“We took a video analyst, Joe Moore, who did a great job in filming all the games and making sure the clips were turned around in time for our debriefs, which is vital for their development.
“In sports science we had Jamie Douglas who did a great job in terms of preparation and recovery which is especially important during a three-day event.
“Natalie Kelly was our physio - she’s our lucky charm as she was physio when we won last year, too. We had a couple of players who were touch and go for the finals but she did a great job in the week prior in terms of their rehabilitation, and they were flying come kick-off in the first game.”
To win such a high-profile tournament not once but twice is a huge credit to all involved, and a considerable source of pride for everyone at the Club, as Betsy explains: “This is great recognition of the work done by a great deal of people within the academy, as the environment and development programme we create is very much tailored to individual development.
“The experience they will have gained in this team competition will hopefully give them more exposure to challenges they will face in the professional game.
“We hope to see as many of these players in our First Team in years to come but they must continue to work hard, be humble and have a willingness to improve and develop in the way that they are.”