Grassroots the key to growing football talent: Rice
He may have attracted the attention of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea, but Fulham's teen sensation Ryan Sessegnon still has his feet firmly on the ground.
That is the assessment of Fulham's academy recruitment manager Dan Rice, who believes that mindset is key to the meteoric rise of the 16 year-old left back, who is the first player born in the 21st century to score a goal in the top four divisions in England.
"He was already playing with the Under-18s last year, when he went to the manager and asked if he could play with his Under-16 peers and help them win the U-16 national tournament," Rice told The New Paper.
"That kind of maturity and groundedness was really refreshing."
Boosted by Sessegnon's goals and assists, Fulham's U-16s went on to win the tournament.
Rice was in town last week, ahead of the JSSL International Sevens (April 29 - May 1) that will feature a Fulham U-16 side that are a batch below Sessegnon's peers.
Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon, Malaysian team Penang FA, Thai outfit Bangkok United and Australia's Perth Glory will also compete in the tourney.
While Fulham's academy provided a platform for Sessegnon to flourish - the speedy flanker already has 23 senior games and six goals in his debut season in the Championship - it is Sessegnon's attitude and aptitude that make him stand out.
Said Rice: "He came to us as an eight-year-old with his twin brother (Steven) and has been very receptive to everything asked of him both on and off the pitch. And when players are like that, it makes a coach's job much easier."
As a full-time trainee, the academy has Sessegnon for six to seven sessions a week - in addition to a weekly match - with individual work, target setting sessions as well as video analysis sessions.
It's like learning to swim — you must start at the shallow end. If a player has all his basic fundamentals right, it is easier to make the transition into the academy.Fulham's academy recruitment manager Dan Rice
While contact time with a player could be the key gap in youth development systems in Singapore, Rice asserts that the first step to nurturing top quality players comes at the grassroots level.
"It's like learning to swim - you must start at the shallow end. If a player has all his basic fundamentals right, it is easier to make the transition into the academy," said Rice, who revealed that Fulham have partnerships with grassroots clubs in its community.
The Championship side, who are chasing promotion into the English Premier League, support the grassroots through coaches' education programmes to help ensure that kids get a quality football education, while also involving these grassroots clubs in festivals and tournaments.
"This is my fourth time in Singapore, and from what I've seen, there definitely is talent here. But talent spotting and talent recruitment are two different things," said Rice, who believes Singaporean youngsters could struggle with the intensity and pace of the game in Europe.
"Whether a player has the ability to learn and transfer the learning to the pitch is a key factor in whether he will be successful.
"But if I were to come to Singapore to set up a youth system similar to what we have in Fulham, I will definitely start with the grassroots - that will provide a good base for successful players in the future."
- SHAMIR OSMAN