It was March 2016 when Fulham’s academy staff went to manager Slavisa Jokanovic and recommended that Ryan Sessegnon, then just 15 years old, should take part in first-team training.
Jokanovic agreed and arranged for Sessegnon to be included in a Friday morning session.
There was a slight problem, though. Sessegnon was in class at Coombe Boys’ School – and didn’t have his boots on him.
RYAN SESSEGNON’S STUNNING SEASON
Minutes played: 3,770
Mins per goal: 269.29
Shots on target: 22
Chances Created: 51
Passing accuracy: 74.93
Dribbles attempted: 129
Dribbles completed: 55
*Stats for Championship only
Academy director Huw Jennings drove Sessegnon home to collect his boots but there was another problem – the teenager didn’t have a key.
‘We roared down to Roehampton but he didn’t have a key on him and sort of broke in to try and get the boots,’ Jennings says.
Not many can say they broke into their own home to get their big break, but it would be worth it. Now 17, Sessegnon has become the first player outside the top flight ever to be named on the shortlist for the PFA Young Player of the Year.
On Sunday night at the EFL Awards, he was named the Championship’s player of the season, young player of the season and Championship apprentice of the year in just his first year as a professional.
‘In that first session with the first team he just looked like it was no different to a training session in the under 18s or in the under 16s,’ Jennings says.
Five months later, Sessegnon would make his first-team debut for Fulham away at Leeds in the Championship while still on a scholarship contract.
It is a day that captain Tom Cairney remembers with a laugh and a smile.
Cairney recalls being a little puzzled when Jokanovic came into the dressing room and put the teamsheet up and he saw Sessegnon’s name.
‘I thought he’d made a spelling mistake,’ Cairney says. ‘It was Leeds away. Elland Road is not a place you’d expect a 16-year-old to be given a chance.’
The kid was up to the task. Sessegnon charged down the left wing early on and played in a dangerous cross that team-mate Floyd Ayite nearly scored from. The game would finish 1-1, with Sessegnon having starred in his first full game.
‘He was the best player on the pitch,’ says Cairney. ‘Leeds didn’t really know what to do with him and he just looked so comfortable.’
Four days later, Sessegnon became the youngest ever Championship goalscorer aged 16 years and 94 days when Fulham drew 2-2 with Cardiff at Craven Cottage.
Fast forward two years and one month on from that Friday training session and what you have is a player who has scored 21 goals since his full debut, won the European Under-19 Championship with England, changed position and is being talked about as the next global superstar with some of the world’s biggest clubs trying to sign him.
‘He’s been incredible,’ says Cairney. ‘What he’s done for his age is unheard of especially in this league because it’s such a man’s league. Ten goals in (his last) 15 games and it’s hard because he has played so many games but it really doesn’t show.
‘He also hasn’t really had a summer break with him playing in the Euros so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a little tired.’
His importance in Fulham’s team this season has only grown as the club has moved up the league to third place. Before the 2-0 win away at Norwich on Good Friday, in which he came off the bench, he had started every one of the club’s 38 league games this season.
|Most goals||Most goals/assists||Touches in opposition box|
|Aleksandar Mitrovic – 10||James Maddison – 9/4||Ryan Sessegnon – 122|
|James Maddison – 9||Ryan Sessegnon – 9/3||Ollie Watkins – 112|
|Ryan Sessegnon – 9||Robert Snodgrass – 4/8||Lee Gregory – 102|
|Patrick Bamford – 9||Matt Smith – 5/7||Florian Jozefzoon – 100|
|Oliver McBurnie – 8||Aleksandar Mitrovic – 10/1||Matt Smith – 94|
‘He’s got unbelievable athleticism for his age and the uniqueness of how rambunctious he is as a player,’ Jennings says. ‘By that I mean his ability to cope with the demands of the Championship, which I think most people really underestimate, and I’ve noticed it a few times that he does get fatigued but the numbers that he posts in games and training are outstanding. It almost demands that he’s selected.’
Attend any press conference and it’s likely Jokanovic will be asked about Sessegnon.
‘He is a special player – what more is there I can say?’ Jokanovic says with a smile. ‘It is a privilege to work with such a talent and someone who has such a positive effect on the team.’
Sessegnon signed his first youth-team deal with Fulham in the summer of 2008 and was placed with the under 9s.
It was the same time that Jennings took the job of heading up the club’s academy. He arrived with a reputation for developing elite-level footballers, having worked with Gareth Bale, Adam Lallana and Theo Walcott in his role as academy director at Southampton.
At Craven Cottage, Moussa Dembele, Patrick Roberts and Emerson Hyndman were all coached by Jennings before leaving as better players.
Sessegnon has had opportunities to move on. Top Premier League clubs were circling long before he made his Fulham debut. Sixty-eight appearances in the Championship later and the interest has only intensified.
Tottenham have been sending scouts to watch him since early last season. They remain the favourites to sign him should he choose to leave in the summer. Barcelona have been watching his progress while Liverpool, Manchester United and even Real Madrid have all been linked with a move.
Sportsmail understands, however, that Mauricio Pochettino, who has already shown he is willing to place faith in English talent, is viewed as a manager who would be ideal for Sessegnon’s development.
Unique Sports Management, who represent Ryan and his brother Steven, have a number of high-profile players in their stable, including Tottenham striker Harry Kane. They prefer their players to be settled at one club and don’t have a reputation for targeting multiple moves.
Sessegnon signed his first professional contract, which runs until June 2020, last summer but when he turns 18 in May there is every chance he will become a significantly richer man, with a new deal surely needed to reflect his new status.
Talks with Tottenham have continued this season and former Fulham striker Leroy Rosenior is one of many who believe a deal has already been done.
For Jennings, someone who is tasked with developing players ready for the Champions League, a move would mean a job well done. He is very fond of Ryan and his twin brother Steven’s roots in Roehampton. Both of them were brought up closer to Fulham than any other club and with the support of cousin and former West Brom forward Stephane Sessegnon.
The brothers, born on Thursday, May 18, 2000, have been inseparable growing up.
Without making it a contest between the two, Steven was part of the England U17 side that won the World Cup last year in India. In the same summer, Ryan won the European Championship in Georgia with England’s U19s and was named in the team of the tournament.
That success would precede what has been an excellent season, particularly for Ryan.
He has become known for his goals and assists, but those who have watched him for years will tell you how his game centres on stamina, speed and mental strength. Cairney, who is now used to seeing the impact he has, explains.
‘He’s infectious, fearless and has a lot of energy,’ he says. ‘He makes things happen. He’s got them young legs that don’t stop running and he gives us a lift every time he’s on the pitch.’
What startled many when watching him at the raw age of 10 was his habit of getting sucked towards the play, especially when the ball was close to the opposition goal. His desire to be involved at every stage in an attacking move.
‘It’s difficult to coach that as an innate skill,’ Jennings says.
It is an attitude that has only been encouraged. It also explains why, even when he was deployed as a left back earlier in the season, he was able to get into dangerous and goalscoring positions.
His first goal in the Championship this season came at home to Cardiff in September. The score was 0-0 with 15 minutes left and Jokanovic told him to hold his position a little longer when high up the pitch.
It worked. Cardiff had dropped deep when Sessegnon took control of the ball outside of the penalty area, passed to Aboubakar Kamara, then sprinted past defenders Sean Morrison and Sol Bamba and put himself in a perfect position to finish when Floyd Ayite’s shot came back to him.
Had it been your first viewing of Sessegnon, and without a teamsheet in front of you, you would have thought he was playing as a No 10 based on that particular phase of play.
‘Many of his goals have come on the back of real anticipation,’ Jennings says. ‘People maintain there’s a lot of goals in the six-yard box, well, that’s because he’s in the right place at the right time.
‘It’s that anticipation that I think is unusual in a young player, showing that level of self-confidence, belief and self-awareness to be the fulcrum of the team.’
Jokanovic’s trust has only got stronger. There has always been a feeling that Sessegnon, given an almost perfect situation, could inflict heavy damage. Sheffield United presented him with that scenario at Bramall Lane in November. His hat-trick contributing to five of the goals scored by Fulham that night.
‘Ryan is growing up in the right direction, he is a young player with a clear head, he wants to improve and learn. He wants to be better in the future and we will support him where we can,’ said Jokanovic.
Step by step that is what has happened. He has been given a platform to showcase what he can do while developing at the same time.
Sessegnon relinquished his defensive responsibilities for good when Matt Targett joined on loan from Southampton in January and occupied the left back position. It was a relief for Fulham supporters, who would finally get to see Sessegnon fully unleashed as a left winger.
The numbers suggest only good has come of the permanent positional change.
He has been involved in 12 goals and has scored nine since the turn of the year. One of his key traits is opening up gaps for others to run into or drawing defenders towards him by charging forward, which creates panic in the opposition backline.
He also has the highest number of touches in an opposition box this year in the Championship with 122 – ten more than Brentford’s Ollie Watkins and 20 ahead of Lee Gregory of Millwall.
It is clear that playing him on the wing gets the most out of him. Before the change, he tended to hold back more. The latest numbers show that Sessegnon spends on average just five per cent of his time during a game in what would be considered a left back position. He now tends to retreat only to the halfway line and has stopped tracking back.
It has led to Targett suggesting Sessegnon could emulate Bale. The Real Madrid star, similarly to Sessegnon, played at left back for the teenage years of his career before moving further up the pitch.
‘He’s definitely right up there (with Bale at the same age),’ said Targett. ‘But the main thing for him is he has a lot of years ahead of him, he needs to keep working hard, keep his feet on the ground. He’s a massive threat and he’s got a massive future.’
Jennings, having coached both players, believes Sessegnon is ahead of Bale in his development.
He says: ‘Gareth was a later physical developer and he came into the Southampton team at the end of his under-17 year but prior to that he had been very much an under-15 and under-16 – whereas Ryan has a level of athleticism that has enabled him to train in a first-team environment since he was 15.
‘But yes, outside of that, I’d argue that there are similarities. Gareth all of a sudden developed a power base, which was second to none, particularly when he went to Tottenham and it’ll be interesting to see when Ryan reaches his full maturity what level he is able to set.
‘But the style of play has some similarities. The attitude has got similarities and both are quiet boys in their own way. I think it is invidious sometimes to be making comparisons but there is an inevitability about it. I’m sure Ryan will be delighted if he had a career that resembles Gareth’s.’
The stairwell that goes up from the academy dressing rooms to the restaurant at Motspur Park was decorated last year with pictures of academy players who had played 10 games or more in the first team.
As you go through the door to the restaurant, Sessegnon’s picture is in front of you.
Jennings laughs as he recalls how he saw an opposition under-16 side waiting one by one to have their photo taken against the wall.
He explains: ‘At first I wasn’t sure what they were doing and then I realised they were standing next to Ryan’s photo and having their photograph taken. That’s what makes you realise that you are dealing with a phenomenon and I think he does understand that. And I think he understands he has a role to play for young people in terms of demonstrating that he’s got a responsibility on his shoulders to be able to manage that.’
Last month he was named EFL player of the year and young player of the year at the London Football Awards. He was also named in the Championship Team of the Year and was in the EFL Team of the Season, as well as winning his individual gongs. And then there is the PFA awards.
Beyond that there is the World Cup in Russia. Southgate continues to have Sessegnon watched by assistant manager Steve Holland. The England boss is expected to watch him at Craven Cottage before picking his final World Cup squad. England U21s boss Aidy Boothroyd briefed Southgate after Sessegnon made his full debut for the Under 21s against Ukraine.
This summer is likely to come too soon. There will, of course, be plenty of other opportunities and everything that has gone before suggests Sessegnon will thrive when he gets the chance.
The question has already been put to Jokanovic: Do you think the teenager could be part of the 23-man squad? The answer from the Fulham manager is ‘yes’.
‘I cannot recommend the people or choose, but nobody can make a mistake with this kid, he deserves everything and I believe if not this time, soon he will be in big competition or top around the world,’ he said.
‘We must be thinking about good and bad players, experience is important but he is really experienced player for his age in this moment.
‘I take (a decision) two years ago to play with this kid and two years ago this kid became a man.’