EFL’s first $100m player? Oh yes...
it’s rare that a teenager plying his trade in the Football League can be deemed a ‘sure thing’ – a player so likely to make a splash at the very highest level, that the biggest clubs in Europe are already salivating at the prospect of securing the starlet’s signature. FourFourTwo is in a warehouse-turned-football-showroom to not only witness the launch of England’s new kit for this summer’s World Cup, but also to meet Ryan Sessegnon, a player who just so happens to match the above description. Hordes of journalists and selfie-stick wielding YouTubers are hovering around Marcus Rashford, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Butland, but while all this madness is unfolding around him, Fulham’s teenage sensation sits calmly on a stool in the corner of the room. He may not be able to keep such a low-profile for much longer. Having made his debut last season aged 16 years and 83 days, he posted a further 29 first-team appearances, scoring seven goals from left-back and sealing a place in the Championship Team of the Year. These award-winning performances came all of two years after he had helped Coombe Boys to win the PlayStation Schools’ Cup. If you thought that was pretty good, 2017-18 has been even better. Fulham manager Slavisa Jokanovic has transformed this threatening left-back into an even more threatening left-winger, with Sessegnon hitting 12 league goals for the promotion-chasing Cottagers. There’s still three months of the season to play. It’s not a bad resumé for a humble London lad who is not even 18 until May. Scarier still, Ryan has a twin brother, Steven, who played his first game for Fulham in a Carabao Cup tie earlier this term. It’s time to find out what all the fuss is about...
Who were your football idols when you were growing up?
I’ve always been an attacking left-back so I really admired Luke Shaw, particularly when he was at Southampton. He’s got a lot of attacking qualities and creates chances, which is something I like to do myself. His ability to get up and down the pitch is incredible.
Your cousin, Stephane, played for Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion – was he an inspiration for you at that time?
He is definitely someone I have looked up to. I wasn’t personally that close to him, but my father is. I’ve seen him on TV a lot, but he hasn’t chatted to me or given me advice or anything like that. If I can enjoy the career he’s having, then I won’t have done too badly!
Your brother, Steven, also plays for Fulham’s academy. What was it like, growing up and playing together?
We always played in the back garden together and shared the same dream of becoming a professional footballer. It was quite competitive at times because we both wanted to be the best, but looking back now, I think that was a good thing. We support each other but we also push ourselves to be better. We are quite relaxed and humble, but we keep each other in check as well – we won’t get carried away. We know that success and hype can quickly disappear.
Is it strange to have such a different life to your old schoolfriends?
It’s different, but I’ve been playing football all the way through school so I think we’ve all got used to it now. I have managed to balance my school and football pretty well. My parents really pushed me to do well in my education, so I’ve always taken my studies seriously. My parents have guided me well. My favourite subject at school? Probably French. I really enjoyed it and I can still speak a bit, too.
What were your aims at the start of last season?
My target was to be a bit-part player and get a few matches under my belt, but since I made my debut [against Leyton Orient in the League Cup in August 2016] I’ve been in the team a lot. I’m just thankful that the manager has given me this opportunity.
Did it feel like a huge step up, going straight from academy level to playing in the Championship?
I haven’t felt that. I think the physical demands of the Championship are pretty similar to what they were for me when I was playing in the under-23s, so I have been able to adapt pretty smoothly. It hasn’t felt like a big shock to the system.
Did your manager give you any advice before your debut?
Not really – he just treated me like any other first-team player. One of the other senior players, Scott Parker, was very good with me. He told me to relax and make sure that I enjoyed it. And I did.
Some of England’s biggest and most experienced superstars of recent decades have fallen short when it’s come to transferring their stellar club form to the international stage in big tournaments. The good news is that Ryan Sessegnon doesn’t seem to have fallen foul of this unfortunate precedent. He has looked as snug as a bug in his country’s colours so far, and not just during his chat with FFT while modelling the new Nike jersey (above) that the senior side will wear at this summer’s World Cup in Russia. In 2016, Sessegnon was promoted to the England U17 team a year ahead of schedule so he could play in the European Championship in Azerbaijan. Aged only 15, he appeared alongside fellow prodigies such as Chelsea defender Dujon Sterling and Arsenal wideman Reiss Nelson. Although England were knocked out in the last 16 by eventual finalists Spain (including Brahim Diaz of Manchester City), the experience was not lost on the youngest member of the squad. After featuring in every match of that tournament, Sessegnon was selected for the U19 team’s Euro 2017 campaign in Georgia last July. He scored three goals, two of them coming in a 4-1 win over Germany, as England went on to win the competition. The only player in any of the squads to have a 21st-century birthdate finished as the joint-top scorer and named in the team of the tournament. However, all of this success came as no real surprise to Fulham fans – nor Championship defenders – and Sessegnon’s summer showings prompted Cottagers manager Jokanovic to back his youngster to play for England’s senior side in the not-too-distant future. So, how much longer will it be before Ryan is banging down Gareth Southgate’s door? Is he leading a new breed of technically proficient players? And, with the U20, U19 and Toulon squads all winning major tournaments while the U17s reached two finals, what was behind the success of England’s youth teams last year?
Ryan, you’ve played regularly for England at youth level, but what are your earliest memories of watching the senior team?
I just about remember watching the 2006 World Cup in Germany. That was a really good England team. I always admired Steven Gerrard, as he had great leadership skills.
You won the European U19 Championship with England last year. What was that experience like?
It was brilliant – winning the tournament was a massive achievement. I think 2017 was a great year for England’s young teams. There have always been talented players in England, but for whatever reason we haven’t had success in major tournaments.
Is England now producing a different breed of player? Did you grow up playing cage football football, for instance?
I played a lot of street football and cage football from a young age, and playing five-a-side in tight areas really helped me to hone my skills. Once you are on an 11-a-side pitch, the game becomes easier easier, as you have bigger spaces to play in.
How important is it for young players to experience the pressure of tournament football?
I think it helps you a lot. Winning these tournaments and beating some big teams is invaluable experience. Learning to handle the pressure is great for the future, because now I have already been there and done it. There There’s huge pressure at those tournaments tournaments. If you get beat at a World Cup, people will remember it, and you have to wait another four years to correct it. With your club, you often have two matches a week, so you can quickly put things right.
What were your highlights of the U19 tournament?
Well, that would have to be the two goals I scored in the 4-1 win over Germany. That victory put Germany out of the competition and gave us a lot of belief, because they are always strong opponent opponents.
Was it difficult, being away from home for so long?
I think I’m quite used to it now. It’s not the first time I’ve been abroad to play in that kind of tournament, and it was the same for most of my team-mates, too. I think we all adapted well to that.
Who should we look out for from that England U19 team?
The team is really packed with talent, but if I had to pick a few names I would go for Mason Mount and Trevoh Chalobah from Chelsea. They are both really talented players.
How did the players celebrate that Euros victory?
Straight after the final we went out to eat as a squad, but I didn’t do anything particularly special with family and friends when I got back. We did the celebrating with the team, which was great. Our time with the Wandsworth wonderkid is almost up, but his time is just beginning. Last summer he was linked with a $40 million move to Manchester United – as well as transfers to Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal – before he inked a new three-year deal with Fulham in June. “I made my mind up to stay, months before I signed that contract,” he tells FFT. “I knew I’d play more games here than elsewhere, which is important at my age in order to keep developing.” Twelve years ago, Gareth Bale excelled in the English second tier for Southampton as a 17-year-old attacking left-back, before being turned into a winger following his move to Spurs. Unsurprisingly, Sessegnon has been likened to Real Madrid’s Galactico. What does he think of the comparison? “It is flattering,” he admits, “but it’s still way too early to be compared to someone so great.” As for his best role, the Londoner is undecided. “I’ve enjoyed playing as a winger because I can impact the game more in terms of goals and assists,” he adds. “But it’s good to be versatile. I’m happy in either position.” Ryan Sessegnon has already compiled a splendid highlights reel. If he keeps adding to it, that hefty $100m fee could be irrelevant. He may be terrorising the top flight next term with Fulham, an idea that should be enough to give Premier League defenders sleepless nights.
“GROWING UP, I REALL Y ADMIRED L UKE SHAW, ESPECIALL Y AT SOUTHAMPTO N. HE CREATES CHA NCES A ND THE WAY HE GETS UP A ND DOW N THE PITCH IS I NCREDIBLE”
Top right Ryan attempts to increase his goal tally at home to Middlesbrough in September Bottom right Sessegnon has excelled in England’s various youth teams