Fulham Under-16s reached the Final of the Premier League International Cup at the weekend, but were beaten by Manchester United in a penalty shoot-out.
It’s the third consecutive year that the young Whites had reached the Final of the prestigious competition, but they were unfortunate this time that they were unable to repeat the successes of 2014 and 2015.
Qualifying for the tournament is a feat in itself, and Fulham needed to come out on top of a group featuring West Ham United, Arsenal and Norwich City to reach the Finals in Liverpool, something they duly managed after taking seven points from those games at the start of the month.
That put them through to the competition proper, where they were drawn in a group with Porto, Derby County and hosts Liverpool.
“It was a group that we looked at and thought we could get out of with the players we have, if they played to their potential,” Colin Omogbehin, who led the team alongside Dan Thomas, told fulhamfc.com.
The Whites came out on top of a cagey opener against Porto courtesy of a sound defensive display and a second half penalty that earned a 1-0 win, but a 9.45am kick-off the following day against Derby ended in a 3-1 loss.
“That was a bit of a blow,” Thomas admitted. “But we didn’t perform well so we got what we deserved, and it meant that we had to beat Liverpool in the last game to win the group. The way other results went, whoever won out of us or Liverpool would qualify.
“We’d watched Liverpool play so we knew what their strengths and weaknesses were, and we had a plan of how to set up against them. The boys executed it really well and we ended up winning 2-0 in a comfortable victory.”
A Semi-Final against a physical West Bromwich Albion awaited, but Fulham – who were one of the youngest and smallest sides in the competition – stuck to their gameplan of dominating possession and being solid at the back, and ended up taking the tie to penalties after finishing 0-0.
“We hadn’t practised penalties going into the tournament,” Omogbehin said. “But credit to our boys, they scored all theirs, and our goalie Luca Ashby-Hammond did very well to produce two saves during the shoot-out.”
That meant that the youngsters had their third Final in as many years, with United standing between them and another trophy.
“I thought our boys did really well,” Omogbehin continued. “We changed strategy; we normally like to press teams high and get after them, but we changed it a little bit and let them have it in certain areas.
“It was mainly to save our legs but it also made it difficult for them to play through, and we tried to hit them on the counter. First half they had the lion’s share of possession but second half we completely dominated.”
Fulham hit the crossbar and had an effort cleared off the line in what was the closest either side came to breaking the deadlock, and so another penalty shoot-out would be needed to decide the winner.
Ashby-Hammond saved one of United’s spot-kicks, but it wasn’t enough to claim the trophy as the Mancunians triumphed in sudden death.
“The boys were obviously gutted,” Thomas stated. “But for myself and Colin it was a massive achievement getting to the Final.
“We had players like Dennis Adeniran and Ryan Sessegnon playing in previous years, boys who could win a game on their own. This year was more of a team effort, sticking together, working hard together.
“For a club like Fulham to make the Final three years in a row, having had to qualify first, ahead of teams like Chelsea, Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham Hotspur, is some achievement.
“It’s a reflection of the whole Academy. The recruitment’s been great over the last few years, we’ve brought in a lot of talented boys, and they’ve been well coached throughout to get to a stage where they’re ready to play in tournaments at a high level.”