In his first piece for Fulhamish, Will Gardner looks at how those who donned the captain’s armband for our U21 and U23 sides have got on.
It’s been 10 years now since the fabric of our academy changed, or at least since the reserves/development squad was rebranded as the under-21s. The change brought different rules into reserve sides, with a distinct focus on bringing the next generation through, with only three over-21s allowed in a match day squad. It was a clear directive from the FA to drive the future of our game after disappointing World Cup after disappointing Euros.
I wanted to take a deep dive into the players who wore the armband and led these lads during the last 10 years. Being the captain of the U21 side is a unique mantle to take; they’re young players themselves, tasked with being a leader among a group of young men who are looking to build their footballing careers.
If you assume that the captain may be one of the best players, and consider that, ultimately, not many – if any – of our captains have broken through, you have to ask: are they stunted by the pressure of responsibility? I’ve tried to take a look back at some of the U21/23 captains of yesteryear, and see what happened to them.
2012/13: Alex Smith
I’ll admit I wasn’t totally clued up on Alex Smith when I was digging out the old team sheets, a few of the names rang a bell, but I drew a blank when trying to remember him.
The armband was passed around more than a ball in a Scott Parker back line during this season, initially starting with Dan Burn before his loan to Yeovil, and Jack Grimmer took charge a few times as well, but it appears that Alex Smith was given the honours the most under Kit Symons. He was even included in this Bleacher Report article of hot prospects, alongside the likes of Marc Albrighton, Jack Rodwell and Ben Foster.
Primarily playing in central midfield during this season, Smith – who could also play anywhere on the left – even made an appearance for the first team, coming on as a 91st minute sub for Damien Duff in a 3-0 win against West Brom at the Cottage. You’d have to ask Smith if those two minutes were the peak of his career, because unfortunately he never quite hit those heights again.
After a couple short loan spells at Leyton Orient and Stevenage, Smith was released at the end of the 2012/13 season and swiftly signed for Fulham villain Mark Cooper’s Swindon in League One. After a promising first couple of games Smith had a nasty knee injury that was initially supposed to keep him out until Christmas, but he didn’t run out again for the Robins until mid March, scoring his first for the club 10 days later.
He only made a handful of appearances after March and the option wasn’t triggered on his contract. A successful trial for Yeovil saw him join them in League One, but he was released following their relegation, having only made six appearances. Smith had a brief spell at Conference side Woking before finally making a successful impact at Eastbourne Borough. He was last seen at Hastings United in the Isthmian South-East League, joining them in 2018, however he’s not currently on the squad list and at 30 it looks like his career’s fizzled out.
2013/14: Jack Grimmer
Grimmer joined the Whites youth set-up after breaking through at SPFL side Aberdeen, becoming the Scottish club’s youngest-ever player at 16. Primarily deployed as a centre-back, Grimmer controlled the back line and progressed to the first team under Kit Symons, making 17 appearances in all competitions during the 2014/15 season.
Despite a couple of successful loan spells at Shrewsbury, Grimmer was released by Fulham in 2017 and joined Coventry City, helping them secure promotion to League One in his first full season away from the Whites. To say he settled into life well at Coventry would be an understatement. He won player of the month in September, scored the winning goal against then premier league side Stoke in the FA Cup, before scoring the third goal in their 3-1 win over Exeter in the play-off final. Despite the fact he was in Coventry, he was living in dreamland.Embed from Getty Images
That came crashing down the following year as his appearances dropped from 53 to 13 and he was released. But after a nervy two months as a free agent he was back in a different shade of blue, lining up for Wycombe Wanderers.
He secured promotion again via the play-offs after Wycombe were controversially handed a place there after the early season finish due to the pandemic.
We clearly bought a top class player from Aberdeen, and at £200,000 Jack would have hoped to have earned more than 17 appearances. However, football works in peculiar ways and if he’d been breaking through at a time when the club was more settled, who knows what he could have gone on to do.
2014/15: Jonathan Buatu
In 2014 the unthinkable (for the younger fans, at least) had happened: the Whites were relegated to the Championship. Felix Magath would soon make way for Kit Symons, who brought a few U21 players through to the first team, including Grimmer. The captain’s armband made its journey from Josh Passley to Steven Arthurworrey before finally resting on Jonathan Buatu.
Having joined the Whites the year before on a free transfer from Genk, Buatu had previously been at Standard Liege at the age of 15, even making a senior appearance before making the 45-minute journey north (cheers Google Maps). After a couple years in Belgium he joined us and made more than 30 appearances in two years for the U21 squad, but unfortunately never made the jump to the first team.
In 2014/15, Buatu found himself called up to the Angola national team and has gone on to make 13 appearances for them. However, following his second season at the U21s he found himself moving back to Belgium and joining the Waasland-Beveren, the Second Division side based in East Flanders, which anyone who remembers their GCSE History will be aware of. He seemed to feel right at home here and made 76 appearances, even bagging three goals from centre-back, which I completely assume were from corners as he dominated at 6ft 2in.
At the end of his three-year contract, Buatu moved to Rio Ave in Portugal. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite fall into place as they did in East Flanders and he only made 21 appearances across two years.
Buatu moved back to Belgium and this time he joined Sint-Trudien, affectionately known to all of us as De Kanaries, but you knew that. In his first couple of years he made 30 appearances, scoring one goal and spending the second half of last season at Eyuspor in Turkey. Looking at his highlight reel from his time in Turkey he most certainly looks like a commanding presence at the back, with a towering head and a decent turn of pace with even a couple threaded through balls that Tosin would be proud of.
2015/16 and 16/17: Josh Smile
Joining the whites academy in 2013 after a couple stints at Southampton and Oxford United, Josh worked his way up the ranks and even made an appearance in 13/14 for the U21s while only 16, and made a handful of appearances in the following two seasons after that. He was handed the captains armband when he made the permanent move up the age groups.
He led the team, which included future first-teamers Cameron Burgess, Jesse Joronen, Marek Rodak, and the one and only Larnell Cole. The Whites finished ninth in the U21 Premier League 2, with Stevie Humphrys and Mattias Kaitt top scoring with five goals each.
The following season was a whole lot better with the team finishing fourth in the league and losing in the play-offs away at Newcastle. It appears that 2017 wasn’t the year for Fulham and play-offs as I don’t need to remind you what happened to the first team. The U21s were also running rings around teams in the U21 Premier League Cup and after walking their group they lost on penalties to Norwich in the round of 16, after an absolutely ludicrous match which finished 5-5. Some of the notable players to make appearances that year were the mysterious Jozabed, Cauley Woodrow, Lasse Vigen Christensen, and a debut for the one and only Ryan Sessegnon.
That season would be the last for Smile as he joined Chippenham Town. He made an instant impact and made 26 appearances in his first season scoring eight goals, His dynamism in the middle of the park earned him a move to Maidenhead Utd after two seasons.
Smile started strongly at Maidenhead, but soon found game time limited. Clearly something wasn’t right and he needed a new opportunity – and that came from the infamous Essex side Billericay. Joining them on a one-month deal he made an impact by making eight appearances in December and scoring an absolute screamer in the Essex Senior Cup.
Unfortunately things haven’t finished how Josh may have liked at Maidenhead and he was released this summer. It’s not clear where he’ll go next.
2017/18 and 18/19: Aron Davies
After signing from Bristol City, Davies was seen as a hot prospect due to his ball-playing ability from the back. Composed on the ball with a good range of passing, he seemed like an ideal candidate for future Fulham sides, especially as he was most comfortable on the left side of centre-back.
Having worked his way up through the U18s, his first full season for the newly-christened U23s was under Josh Smile’s captaincy, with the team plying their trade in the U23 Premier League 2.
The following year he started as captain before heading out on loan to Maidstone United. Unfortunately the club struggled and he only managed one win with the side as they eventually succumbed to relegation.
After his contract expired, Davies joined Maidenhead United for the 2019/20 season, but unfortunately he suffered a similar fate as Smile. He started strong, helping the Magpies to as high as fourth in the league, but the team started to drop off, he was benched, and they were just outside the relegation zone before the league was cancelled due to Covid.
Davies briefly headed back to his native Wales and signed for Merythr Town, but after a month he headed back to England to play for Redditch as they finished sixth in Southern Central League in 2020/21. A move back to Wales followed. Barry Town was his new home, but struggled to kick on, only making 14 appearances.
Once lauded as our future left-sided centre-back who could ping it round a bit, Davies now finds himself without a club, like a number of the players in this list.
2019/20: Jaydn Mundle-Smith
Once again this is another centre-back leading the team out. I wonder if this is a directive from Huw Jennings or if it’s simply the qualities that are needed for that position translate to a strong leader.
After making a few appearances in 2015/16 for the U18 side, Mundle-Smith broke through and became a key member of the U18s for the 16/17 and 17/18 seasons. He even dabbled in the U23 squad during this time before becoming a key cog for the team in the 18/19 season.
He bagged his first goal in the season he became captain, and also spent a month out on loan at Maidenhead United, making five appearances and scoring one. The following year he moved to Maidstone United for the second half of the campaign.
Unfortunately, as we have seen so often with our captains, Jaydn failed to attract a contract from the club and was released in the summer of 2021. He quickly made his way across South London to the hipster (is that still a thing in 2022) club Dulwich Hamlet. However he failed to make an appearance at Champions Hill and was only an unused substitute twice before moving up a league from National League South to the National League and moving to Wealdstone.
Here he was Mr. Versatile, making a number of appearances in left midfield, left-back and central midfield. He was a key member of the squad, and even bagged goal of the season for a screamer against Barnet. It received a huge 52.6% of the votes and was easily a moment to saviour for the Wealdstone fans. His strong work in his first year has earned him a new deal.
It’s great to see another former player make an impact at a club, whether or not they’re high up the football pyramid. Mundle-Smith has had a great season in Wealdstone and to earn himself another deal and to really make a solid impact. I’ll certainly be checking in this upcoming season and see how Wealdstone get on and whether they can move into the top half of the National League.
2020/21: Connor McAvoy
What’s that? Another defender being given the captain’s armband? Oh go on then!
After a solid showing in the 20/21 season, McAvoy earned himself a one-month loan to the ever-faithful Wealdstone to play alongside Mundle-Smith and George Wickens. You have to wonder if the Head of Recruitment at Wealdstone is a die-hard Fulham fan,Either way, keep them coming as it’s clearly a strong opportunity for first team football for our youngsters.
McAvoy performed so well, including scoring on his debut, that his one-month deal was extended until January, with the Stones boss saying “Connor’s come in and has been a revelation. You all saw from that tackle at Barnet last weekend that effectively won us the game”.
Once again they extended his loan even further and this time until the end of the season, as he became a key part of their starting XI. While Jaydn Mundle-Smith seemed to play a number of positions during this season, McAvoy cemented his place at right-back, receiving constant praise from a number of places, with repeated team of the week inclusions and winning fan’s player of the season.Embed from Getty Images
And that wasn’t all McAvoy won last season; he also bagged a Premier League 2 Division Two winner’s medal as he played a strong role in the squad before heading out on loan. There’s no doubt he’d have been a key component in the squad had he not performed so well on loan.
It’s exciting to see where he might play next season, whether that’s on loan back in the National League or a team in the Football League decides to give him a chance. He has received the highest of praise during his time at Wealdstone so surely it’s only a matter of time we start seeing him in the EFL, or even breaking through for the senior team.
2021/22: Sonny Hilton
When you talk about exciting prospects coming from the U23s, one name is always cropping up in conversation. After joining as an Under 16 from Tranmere Rovers, Sonny Hilton has stormed up the age groups and become one of the key players to look out for.
With Connor McAvoy moving to Wealdstone for multiple loans, Hilton took up the responsibility of leading out the team in our ultimately successful PL2 campaign. This was after spending the summer over in Finland playing for TPS Turku, which after starting 11 out of 11 games meant he truly hit the ground running for the start of our season.
Hitting the ground running might be an understatement as he played every single minute of the PL2 campaign scoring nine goals and providing 12 assists from the right wing. His close control and mazy running made him a nightmare for defences and meant the rest of our attacking players were able to flourish, helping another exciting prospect in Luke Harris score 13 throughout the season.Embed from Getty Images
He scored an absolute screamer against Stoke in the PL2, picking the ball up outside the box and tucking it in the top bin as well as scoring the only goal in the win against West Ham to send Fulham to the semi-final of the PL2.
His exceptional performances haven’t gone unnoticed, and he has earned himself a loan move to League Two Carlisle United. He’s linking up with his former England age groups coach Paul Simpson, and hopefully having a manager who knows him will give Hilton the chance to shine and that belief in his first steps in senior football, Finland aside.
After his dominance in the PL2 last season it’ll be exciting to see how he goes. We’ve got a class player on our books and Carlisle have a class player on their hands for next season, let’s hope he hits the heights we know he can.