Fulham academy director Huw Jennings: Getting stars into first team is a complex jigsaw... they get frustrated

Academy director Huw Jennings lifts the lid on the joys — and challenges — of running Fulham’s talent factory: REUTERS

They have run out of space on the board on the wall at Fulham’s training ground that lists the academy players who have made their first-team debut.

Harvey Elliott is the latest name set to go up after he played against Millwall last month, but the club are waiting for a new panel to be fitted to make more room for the 15-year-old.

At a time of concern about the lack of opportunities for young talent, Fulham are earning a reputation as one of the best clubs at developing players. There have been 37 graduates from their academy to play for the first team in the 10 years since Huw Jennings was appointed academy director in 2008.

Jennings had a key role in the emergence of Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Adam Lallana at Southampton and he is attempting to replicate that success at Fulham. Ryan Sessegnon and Marcus Bettinelli are just two of the success stories of the youth programme he has put in place.

For Jennings, one of the biggest challenges facing clubs is creating enough first-team opportunities. “I have never been one who thinks we do not have talent,” says Jennings when asked about the state of academy football in England. “People will argue that the demographic has changed and there is not the same commitment towards participation. I think the talent pool out there remains very strong and it is our job to harness it. We are as well set up as an academy movement than ever. It remains, then, how they make the breakthrough.”

Jennings is joined at Fulham by two of his former Saints colleagues, Steve Wigley and Malcolm Elias. Wigley, the head of academy coaching, believes the problem for youth development is finding a way to challenge players when they reach 18. “We promote people young here, but it gives you a problem when they get to 18 because they have already played Under-23 football for two years,” he says. “And if they are not ready to play in the first team, we have got to create something that challenges them.

“They are still at a young age, but sometimes they have met a ceiling. In this country, that is our biggest challenge now. A lot of clubs in Europe have that B team structure, like at Barcelona, where Sergio Busquets went into that first.”

Success story: Ryan Sessegnon (Getty Images)

Jennings adds: “We have had decent success in the loan market: look at Marcus Bettinelli and Dan Burn. Those are the ideal pathways, but there are plenty of others who have three or four loans and struggle to make it work. And others you will never get a loan for because they do not fit the profile of what other clubs might want. So, it is a complex jigsaw and players can get frustrated.”

Jennings believes the Premier League is following other European leagues by waiting until players are older before playing them. He uses the example of Phil Foden at Manchester City. “Typically in Europe you would not expect players to mature into first-team football until their early twenties,” says Jennings. “We tend to be impetuous here, that you have to be in by 18. That is a little change we have needed to adjust to really because: a) players are having longer careers; and b) the competition is so intense you might just have to wait.”

Academy stars aiming for the top

Ryan Sessegnon

One of the brightest talents in English football. An incredibly gifted 18-year-old who has already made 76 senior appearances and scored 23 goals for the club he joined at the age of eight.

Marcus Bettinelli

Has re-established himself as No1 after the arrival of two keepers in the summer. The 26-year-old has made 104 Fulham appearances and last month earned his first England call-up.

Moussa Dembele

Scored 17 goals in 46 games for Fulham before he left to join Celtic for just £500,000 in 2016. In the summer he signed for Lyon in a £19.7m deal and already has three goals in five games.

Harvey Elliott

Aged 15 years and 174 days the winger became Fulham’s youngest-ever player when he made his debut in the 3-1 win over Millwall in the Carabao Cup in September.

Fulham want to produce “proper people as well as proper players” and Wigley says the way academy players are handled is different to the past. Fulham used to insist players wore black boots, but they now allow the full spectrum as they adapt to modern ways. “We do not expect the kids to walk around the building with their headphones on and their phones in their hands,” says Wigley. “But we are also trying to create an environment that is creative. Youth development has become like the Champions League and the Premier League now, the bigger clubs are just buying the players. The stakes are high, but if you are good enough you will deliver. We believe that and the kids have to believe that.”

Fulham spent more than £100million on 12 players after promotion, but head coach Slavisa Jokanovic has shown he is willing to promote youngsters. Owner Shahid Khan is also committed.

“The club felt we had to invest in a team that was fit for the Premier League,” says Jennings. “But if you are good enough, then you will find a way. Managers cannot afford to ignore the best players.”

Elliott became the youngest player to appear for Fulham when he came on as a substitute against Millwall in the Carabao Cup, aged 15 years and 174 days.

“This is not a gimmick,” says Jennings. “He earned the opportunity. He had permission from his school to attend a four-day international camp in Spain and he did well. The next logical step was a few minutes in the League Cup.”

Fulham lost Patrick Roberts to Manchester City in 2015 after 22 first-team appearances, but Jennings hopes players like Elliot see there is a pathway at Craven Cottage and stay. “We would like to think, ‘Stay here, have your development with us and, hopefully, the world is your oyster afterwards’,” he says.