It felt like a moment ripped straight from Football Manager. Ryan Sessegnon, a 16-year-old in his first full season with Fulham, was tearing Newcastle United apart at St James’ Park.
The teenager would end up scoring a brace as Fulham ran out 3-1 winners, with much of the post-match discussion focusing on which Premier League club will eventually win the race to sign him.
“I can only tell him that he will improve if he works and stays with us,” Slavisa Jokanovic insisted recently. “This is how I will try to convince him to stay with the club.”
Sessegnon would be wise to listen to Jokanovic. This season has seen a number of English youngsters benefit from regular first team minutes in the Championship. Of the current Under-21 squad, 11 have played 20 or more games in the Championship, with eight call-ups currently plying their trade in the second tier.
Tammy Abraham, on loan from Chelsea, has a better than one-in-two scoring record for Bristol City, and is now being discussed as a potential member of Antonio Conte’s first team squad next season. “You could not envisage Tammy hitting the ground running like he has,” Adi Viveash, Chelsea’s development squad manager, said in November. “But what Tammy has is a massive enthusiasm for the game. He just loves playing football and he loves scoring goals. He is a top kid, and he will be learning a lot about Championship defenders.”
At Huddersfield, Izzy Brown, also on loan from Chelsea, is finding success as part of David Wagner’s dynamic attack. The 20-year-old began the season on loan to Rotherham United, but made a mid-season switch to the John Smith’s Stadium. It is Brown’s third spell away from Stamford Bridge, and also his most productive now he has been afforded the opportunity to fully display his talent.
With Brown one of four English players on loan from Chelsea in the Championship, (along with Abraham, Kasey Palmer at Huddersfield and Fikayo Tomori at Brighton) it appears the club have realised the value in giving youngsters valuable experience in the second tier. The benefit is mutual for clubs such as Huddersfield, who are able to sign potential future stars to aid a push for promotion.
Even those sent to struggling teams can see improvement. Southampton striker Sam Gallagher is enjoying a fruitful season with Blackburn Rovers, despite the club’s ongoing battle against relegation. The 21-year-old has netted 10 goals in 35 league games, attracting interest from Sunderland in the process. “I think his club have done right in letting him go and play games otherwise the development is not as fast in the Under-23 league,” Rovers boss Tony Mowbray said earlier this month. “So we are delighted we’ve got him.”
Of course not all those thriving in the Championship are loanees from the Premier League. Some, like John Swift and Isaac Hayden, chose to leave the comfort of the top flight permanently to establish themselves as first-team regulars. “There’s a few of us that have left [Arsenal], some have gone on loan, others permanently,” Hayden told me in January. “We always knew it was time to leave and I think it was just a matter of where we were going.”
Hayden had been a central figure in Newcastle United’s promotion push up until a recent injury, and spent last season helping Hull City into a similar position. Meanwhile, Swift opted to relocate to Reading in the summer following his release from Chelsea, and is currently battling for a play-off spot under Jaap Stam. The 21-year-old earned his break in the Championship via a season-long loan with Brentford, and couldn’t fail to notice the influence it had on his game.
“Last season at Brentford was a massive step for me,” Swift said shortly after joining Reading. “It was the last year of my Chelsea contract, so I didn’t think I was going to be going out on loan – but Brentford came in and I got straight into it in the first couple of games. Coming from Under-21 football to Championship football, it’s really hard on your body – playing Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday…but I got used to it last season.”
For those youngsters moving to the Championship the benefits are obvious. As well as helping players adjust to the physical demands of first team football, it also affords them the chance of competitive minutes against experienced opposition and being part of a dressing room striving to succeed.
The standard of play may not be as high as the Premier League, but the Championship still requires a high level of technical ability to stand out. Sharing the Premier League’s pace and intensity, it also provides young players with the platform to eventually make the step up in the same way Nathan Redmond, Demarai Gray, Benik Afobe and Rob Holding have.
From there, the next step is to see the talent transition into the full England set-up. Over half a dozen of Gareth Southgate’s current England squad cut their teeth in the second tier, including players such as Nathaniel Clyne, Tom Heaton, John Stones, Kyle Walker, and Harry Kane. All played a significant number of games in the Championship before establishing themselves in the Premier League and going on to earn an England call-up — proving the pathway is there.
Whether that will convince more youngsters toiling in the Premier Reserve League to try the Championship remains to be seen. The second tier is a physically demanding division, but the rewards for those lacking first team experience is clear.
Meanwhile, for supporters glued to the top flight with its glitz and glamour, they may wish to start casting their eye down the football pyramid. The Championship lacks the star names and global marketing that make the Premier League so enticing, but in these youngsters it holds something equally as important — England’s future.