This feature first appeared in the Crystal Palace v West Ham United matchday programme – 28th October 2017
From his opening day last-ditch tackle on Huddersfield Town’s Steve Mounier that had supporters rubbing their eyes, to his displays of speed, timing and agility in the Eagles’ backline, Timothy Fosu-Mensah has quickly made an impression in SE25. Here, he speaks to Jonathon Rogers about making a name for himself in the Premier League, despite not yet reaching his twenties.
Can you remember what you had achieved by the age of 19? Maybe you were just starting out as an apprentice, or like me taking your first tentative steps into the big wide world by sampling the first few weeks of university, much more interested in beers than careers.
Timothy Fosu-Mensah is not your average 19-year-old. He’s come through the academies of not just one, but two of the biggest clubs in world football, shared changing rooms with the likes of Pogba, Ibrahimovic, Rooney and Robben, learnt from some of the best coaches in the game and also represented his country.
Sitting down with him, it is scarcely believable that he will still be a teenager until January. As well as boasting an old head on youthful shoulders, the athletic Dutchman stands an imposing 6’3” and possesses a maturity rarely seen in players his age, with most still dreaming of making a solitary first-team appearance. In fact, when Fosu-Mensah took to the field for his Eagles debut against Huddersfield Town on the opening day, he became the first teen to represent the club in the Premier League since the fresh-faced duo of Tom Soares and Ben Watson in May 2005.
Despite being one of the youngest members of the squad, he has quickly been welcomed into the group: “Things have been good, the players have made me feel really welcome,” he said. “Before I came I was speaking to Patrick [van Aanholt] because we’re represented by the same agency and I’ve known him for a long time, and he was trying to convince me to come here. He helped me to settle in, but it wasn’t just him, it was the captain, Wilf, Christian, Damien Delaney – they all helped me.
“It is good to be playing Premier League football so I’m definitely behind this decision. I came here to play football and I’m happy that’s happening and I’m developing. Every time I step onto the pitch I learn something new, so I can look back at the first few games and I think I did alright.”
Fosu-Mensah’s early displays in red and blue were definitely more than alright, as he swiftly settled into the backline and showed an assurance on the ball and confidence going forward that belies his years. But having been brought to Palace on a season-long loan deal from Old Trafford by Frank de Boer, seeing his compatriot’s swift exit was a setback for Fosu-Mensah, however he is happy to continue his education under another big name.
Commenting on De Boer’s departure, he said: “He’s a legend in Holland. It was quite early, but that’s football and you have to perform. Unfortunately he lost his job but a new, great manager came in. He demands good things from the players and knows our qualities, and as he has plenty of experience, as a young player it is good to work under him. I’ve worked with Louis van Gaal, Frank de Boer, Jose Mourinho, Dick Advocaat and Roy Hodgson so I think for my age I’ve had plenty of good managers already.”
It is a collection of names that most experienced pros can only dream of playing under, with the decorated quintet amassing an incredible 30 domestic league titles, three Champions League and four Europa League winners’ medals between them. They have probably forgotten more about football than most will ever know, proving to be invaluable mentors for someone just starting out in the game such as Fosu-Mensah.
He has been absorbing information since the age of eight when the Amsterdam-born defender joined local giants Ajax’s famed academy, later to be headed by De Boer, where Orlando Trustful would cut his managerial teeth as coach of one of Fosu-Mensah’s youth teams, while playing alongside future Palace teammate Jairo Riedewald.
He is happy to give an insight into what makes it the standard-bearer of football academies. “It’s one of the best places in the world to develop at because you learn a lot as a young player there. They help you with everything such as the technical stuff, but also they try to make you feel as comfortable as you can be. The best young players from other clubs want to go to Ajax so there are only good players around you, and that makes you better. The competition for places is really high, even when you are 14 or 15.”
While most talented youngsters that come through that system don the famous white and red shirts of Dutch football’s most iconic club, Fosu-Mensah followed a different path. In 2014, he was highly sought-after after impressing at under-16 level for club and country, and eventually the pull of Manchester United proved too great.
“First of all I went to Arsenal to have a look at their training ground, and then I played for Ajax in the Aegon Future Cup when Manchester United saw me,” he revealed. “They’re a very big club so I went to have a look at it with my mum and dad and spoke to Andreas Pereira because he spoke Dutch, so I had a good feeling about them, and made the decision to go there instead of Arsenal.
“It was tough because I was settled into the club and my family lived there, so the move split us up because my younger brother is still with Ajax. I came over with my dad and went into the under-18s, but Axel Tuanzebe, Marcus Rashford and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson were there and they made me feel right at home straight away. I lived a minute away from Marcus, and he was the first to get a driving licence so he brought me to training every day!”
After two-and-a-half years and rapid progression through the under-18 and development squads, suddenly Fosu-Mensah was thrust into the spotlight. Having seen what Rashford was capable of by scoring twice in a Europa League tie days earlier, United boss Van Gaal decided to gamble on another of his young protégées, and threw on Fosu-Mensah for his professional debut, ironically against Arsenal, at Old Trafford. Once again, the Dutchman’s maturity came to the fore, helping a patched-up Red Devils side containing many of his friends from the youth ranks claim a 3-2 victory against the side whose grasp he had slipped from
“It was the same week that Marcus made his debut in the Europa League and I had a feeling that it was coming for me as well,” he said. “In the changing room at half-time the manager told me to warm up because I might be coming on, and I wanted to make my debut so badly. I came on in the 55th minute and I had only just turned 18, so playing against Arsenal was great.
Jesse Lingard was playing as was Marcus, but you also had James Weir and Guillermo Varela too, so that was a great experience.” Plenty more of those would follow in Manchester. To date, Fosu-Mensah has 21 appearances to his name for United, with his last coming against Palace on the final day of last season – “I played 90 minutes so I was very pleased with that. I was marking Wilf and he made it hard for me, but I did OK!”
The following week he was an unused substitute as his team lifted the Europa League after beating an Ajax team containing a number of players whom he grew up with. His inclusion in the matchday squad for a final is evidence of how highly-regarded he is by Mourinho, but during the summer the pair felt that the time was right for Fosu-Mensah to gain valuable Premier League experience.
“We spoke and both came to the agreement that this is the best move for my development,” Fosu-Mensah revealed. “Sometimes Jose speaks with me on the phone, or the assistant manager. They think I’m doing well, and Jose told me to just keep focusing on my game.”
It isn’t just Mourinho who has been impressed by Fosu- Mensah’s start to life in SE25. Just weeks after making his Eagles debut, he was handed a first Holland cap by Advocaat in a crunch 2018 World Cup qualifier against France in Paris. An out-of-sorts Dutch display saw their now-futile hopes of qualifying dashed following a 4-0 defeat, but the young defender escaped post-match criticism in his homeland for a promising debut. It bodes well for the rebuilding programme, which could see the teenager as one of its bedrocks.
Looking back on a proud moment, he said: “The result wasn’t good but it was against France in front of 80,000 people so I was very happy to make my debut. It was one of my goals for this season, and I’m happy I’ve achieved it. I was excited but I tried to treat it like every other game, and I did alright. There are some good players coming through, and I have all the confidence that the national team will be great again.”
With an international cap for one of the world’s most famous footballing nations already ticked off his footballing bucket list aged just 19, you can only imagine what else will be achieved over the course of the next decade-and-a-half for Fosu-Mensah.