Fulham's turn to fret over rising star

As clubs follow the academy way, Omozusi proves that it pays to beware admiring eyes
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The Independent Football

At just 17, Omozusi knows what it's like to be in the shop window. After all one of his first assignments, after being taken on by Fulham on his two-year trainee contract, was to be put to work in Harrods by the club's - and the store's - owner Mohamed al-Fayed. "It was just a day's work experience," Omosuzi recalls. "I was in cosmetics. A couple of my team-mates were moving boxes in the basement so I guess I got the better deal. Mr Fayed just wanted us to do a normal day's work in a different environment. Then he came down and gave us all an introduction."

Fayed told them that they were Fulham's future, that gone were the days when the club would be investing tens of millions in players from other clubs - and that they would all be given their chance to shine. "There aren't that many players at the club, to be honest, so that gives more opportunities to the younger ones," Omozusi recalls. "The chairman said that he was looking for homegrown talent."

It's four years since Fulham opened their academy - taking players aged nine to 19 - and Omozusi, a right-back who has been training with the first team this season, appears set to become its most high-profile success. Partly because of his astonishing progress but mainly because of the growing interest in him, it's likely that Fulham will try to tie him to a professional contract before the end of the season. By then, too, he could have made his first-team debut. "That's all I think about these days," says Omozusi, "playing at the highest level."

The £12.5m transfer of 16-year-old Theo Walcott - Omozusi's team-mate for England Under-17s - from Arsenal to Southampton has highlighted the role of the academy system but also the importance that more and more clubs are placing on finding, developing and properly utilising their own young talent.

Spurs, for example, have made their policy clear although most of their young players are still being bought in. Age is, nevertheless, an issue for them. Teenage players, such as Tom Huddlestone and Aaron Lennon, are recruited as much for their potential as the present, and head coach Martin Jol wrinkles his nose when he is wrongly linked with swoops for players over 28. They don't, he says, fit our profile. Hence the £1m bid, which failed, for Middlesbrough's 18-year-old winger Adam Johnson, who has only made eight first-team appearances.

Arsène Wenger has long pursued a similar policy and it's no coincidence that his three January purchases are aged 16, 19 and 21. Chelsea's decision to poach Frank Arnesen as head of youth and development was a clear indicator as to which direction they want to take the club as is the wrangle with Manchester United over 18-year-old John Obi Mikel. The ethos for all big clubs seems to be - get in quick, before your rivals.

Southampton undoubtedly have an exceptional crop coming through their academy but so do Middlesbrough, Leeds United - which has been re-vamped under their astute manager Kevin Blackwell - and Manchester City now under the leadership of Steve Wigley, who used to be in charge of the set-up at St Mary's.

Fulham also have earned a reputation, with Zesh Rehman, Dean Leacock and Adam Green coming through, while their opponents tomorrow, West Ham, have long revelled in their claim to being the "academy of football". But all these clubs also have to contend with the preying eyes of larger rivals.

At Fulham it helps that former director Steve Kean is now deputy to manager Chris Coleman, who himself was fast-tracked from coaching the kids to taking over the first-team. "They have a good relationship with the young players," says Omozusi. "I talk a lot to Steve Kean and he seems very encouraged, asking about me. At Fulham we're all close with the other players as everyone is under one roof. Often they don't have to tell you what to do, they lead by example and act as role models.

"It's a friendly environment. Hard, determined but not uptight." Fulham have also continued the work of their former manager Jean Tigana, who was "big on technique" and instilled in all the club's teams the need to play similar systems and train in the same way.

It helps his progress that Omozusi, who lives in digs, is grounded. His father drives a mini-cab, his mother is a nurse while his older sister is at college. The family are of Nigerian descent and "dad always said that school came first". Omozusi studies sports science part-time at college. Although he spent a week at Chelsea it was decided the "travelling was too much at my age" and he joined Fulham instead. "They were the ones who spotted me first, when I was playing for my district, Hackney, when I was 12," he says. "I took football seriously, enjoyed it but it was still a shock."

Indeed Fulham signed him up straight after a trial match against Millwall. It was an even greater surprise to be fast-tracked through the club's Under-16s, Under-18s and then into the reserves before being picked to train regularly with the first team. "Demanding," he says, "but a real confidence boost. It really does bring out the best in you."

Omozusi has had a similar acceleration at international level - working his way quickly through to now playing for the England Under-18s. "Playing in front of 16,000 at the JJB Stadium against Portugal was just fantastic," he says. "When you see the people they are so passionate. I didn't get nervous." The nerves, right now, may belong to Fulham who are acutely aware of the growing interest in their young star.

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