Ryan Sessegnon and January Arrivals Keep Fulham’s Dream Alive
Thursday, 1 March, 2018 - 10:45
Ryan Sessegnon celebrates after scoring one of the 11 goals he has got for Fulham this season, against Barnsley last month. Photograph: Matt West/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock
London - Ben Fisher
It is seldom dull at Fulham, a club who have shown a habit of making life difficult over the past couple of seasons, treading a rickety yet scenic route instead of any plain sailing. They play bold and full-throttle football, though, with a punchy intensity and goals are not a problem – only Wolves have scored more in the Championship. And the beauty of Slavisa Jokanovic’s slow-burning, swaggering side – unbeaten in nine league matches – is that the fruits of such progress are ripening.
The litmus test is on the horizon. In the space of three weeks they face six of the current top eight, all of whom have to be considered promotion rivals, starting with Aston Villa at Craven Cottage on Saturday. Fulham needed a barnstorming run to reach the play-offs last season and this time, after huffing and puffing through autumn, they are fifth after finding their groove.
“Time in football is important,” Jokanovic says. “We understand a little better, we trust each other, we start believing like family all together.” The Fulham head coach also stresses how, if the summer transfer window had closed before the start of the season, things would have been easier, his ideas clearer. Rui Fonte had led the line alongside Sone Aluko before the latter was sold to Reading for £7.5m two days before the window shut. Such difficulties, Jokanovic says, mean that Fulham will finish the season having operated with “three teams” of varying systems.
The Serb is not moaning but explaining what he describes as the natural process as his team have evolved. The return of the pirouetting playmaker Tom Cairney from a troubling knee injury last weekend enhances their promotion prospects, with Jokanovic noting supporters have been starved of seeing the “best version” of the Fulham captain this season.
The standout performer has arguably been Ryan Sessegnon, the understated 17-year-old who joined the club 10 years ago and lives with his mother and older brother, Chris, in Worcester Park, south-west London, around the corner from the club’s Motspur Park training ground. “Off the pitch he is polite and everything you would want your son to be,” says the midfielder Kevin McDonald. Since being substituted on the opening day of the season, Sessegnon has played all but four minutes of the league campaign, scoring 11 goals. His lung-bursting surges of power and pace have become something of a trademark: easy to detect but difficult to stop.
Huw Jennings, the Fulham academy director who held the same post at Southampton while they nurtured Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, sees “similarities” between Sessegnon and the Real Madrid forward. “He has that spirit Bale has got, saying: ‘Actually the best form of defence is attack and we’ll take it to you whichever part of the pitch we’re on.’” The arrival of Matt Targett last month, on loan from Southampton, has freed Sessegnon to do more damage further upfield. Jokanovic and Fulham, however, are not naive enough to think they will hold on to him for ever.
“When the club is getting bids, then something is going to happen at some point – it’s a matter of time – but the main thing is that we have got him for the rest of the season and hopefully a little bit more,” McDonald says. “He will be a massive player for us between now and whenever he leaves.” There are also high hopes for Sessegnon’s twin, Steven, as well as for Tayo Edun, Elijah Adebayo – the 20-year-old striker out on loan at Cheltenham Town – and Timmy Abraham – the 17-year-old younger brother of Tammy, the Chelsea striker – who signed his first professional contract at Fulham on New Year’s Day.
As Jokanovic points out when asked about his January business, no one player will single-handedly help Fulham over the line but his squad was – eventually – bolstered by three arrivals. He had questioned the support of the club’s hierarchy at the start of last month, taking aim at Tony Khan, the vice-chairman and director of football operations, who is integral to the recruitment of first-team players, insisting his squad was not competitive enough. Targett and Cyrus Christie, the Republic of Ireland full-back, add welcome doses of athleticism and the Newcastle striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, who arrived on deadline day as a result of a WhatsApp conversation with Jokanovic, ought to add goals. “I don’t know where we are going to finish,” the 49-year-old Jokanovic says, “but I know we have the chance to fight and we have shown we can play quality football.”
For now the off-field tensions between Jokanovic and Khan, son of the club’s billionaire Pakistani-American owner, Shahid, have been eased, undoubtedly aided by the acrimonious exit of Khan’s university friend and former assistant director of football operations, Craig Kline, at the end of October. Jokanovic’s charm offensive that followed the January window, in which he praised Khan’s work, was perhaps just that but retaining Cairney and Sessegnon, their two prized assets, amid Premier League interest was arguably more important than any new faces.
Between now and May the true significance of keeping them should become clearer. Asked whether promotion was necessary to keep them next season, Jokanovic replied: “I don’t need to think about these different things. I have many dreams but dreams are for the bed. When I am in the bed, I have the dreams but I must live my realistic life.”
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