Football: Toughened Fulham academy trainee Ben Davis determined to earn pro contract

Singaporean Ben Davis (right) in action during Fulham's under-18 match against Chelsea in March 2018.
Singaporean Ben Davis (right) in action during Fulham's under-18 match against Chelsea in March 2018.PHOTO: FULHAM FC

SINGAPORE - Ben Davis has had to get up to speed - literally - when he started his two-year scholarship contract with Fulham Football Club last July.

The 17-year-old Singaporean also had to attain "football IQ" in the fastest way possible to match his peers at the second-tier Championship club's Under-18 academy.

"The biggest adjustment for me was the quality of players there. They're really physical players, who're quick on the ball and smart - they really have what they call 'football IQ'," Ben, who was born in Thailand, moved to Singapore with his family when he was five and gained citizenship in 2009, told The Straits Times in an interview.

"I was struggling at the start, as most first-year scholars do, but it was just a matter of getting used to things there - like how we're not allowed to wear beanies and gloves to stay warm in the chilly weather until we make it to the first team.

"Now I'm starting regularly."

Fulham's youth programme is rated among England's best, and it did not take long for Ben to settle down and force his way into coach Slavisa Jokanovic's U-18 first XI.

The 1.72m, 59kg attacking midfielder has played against the academy teams of big clubs such as Chelsea and Arsenal in the Under-18 (South) Premier League, and even scored a goal against West Ham in a 2-2 draw in December. The Fulham U-18s are lying seventh out of 12 teams in the league.

He earned a surprise call-up to the national team last month, although he did not play in the Lions' 3-2 friendly win over the Maldives on March 23 or the 0-1 loss to Chinese Taipei in the inconsequential Asian Cup qualifier on March 27.

"The lads (at the academy) thought it (the call-up) was a really big deal, but I don't like to be celebrated that much," said Ben, who studied at the Singapore Sports School from 2013 to 2015 before moving to Harrow High School in London in 2016.

"I don't feel that I need to prove anything, even though I'm 17 and this call-up was a surprise to me."

"It's a really good experience to be at the senior level for Singapore. I've always wanted to play for the national team - all footballers do," added Ben, whose request for National Service deferment - so he can continue to pursue his professional dream - is still pending.

The national call-up allowed him to feel the warmth of home again.

He has two brothers. Jai, 19, plays with Tampines Rovers' youth team, and William, 22, is pursuing a marketing degree. Five-year-old sister Jade is the baby of the family.

"I was glad to be back. I got to see my family and that's a really big thing for me. It helped me, because it's really tough being by yourself," he said. "I'm close to my parents, whom I talk to all the time."

Back at Fulham, his average day starts at 7am (see graphic).

In addition to football training, he receives an education at the academy, doing courses to earn Business and Technology Education Council qualifications - an equivalent of the A Levels - that can help him gain entry into university.

The club provide meals, which include buffet spreads curated for footballers. Ben usually eats chicken, steak and pasta, but he misses the two years he spent at the Sports School, where "the food there is better for your taste buds".

He has had to become more independent, too. Laundry is handled by his guardian but Ben has had to learn to use the microwave oven, to make himself light meals or sandwiches when he gets hungry outside of meal times.

When he returns to his guardian's home at 3.30pm after a day of training and classes, he is often just "too tired to do anything".

This is why he is grateful for the time he gets to spend with his friends outside the competitive environment of football.

"My favourite thing is to hang out at the park at Harrow and kick around at the court with people from different schools. It's very chill," said Ben, who gets to do it only on weekends before a 75-minute train ride back to London. "It's good to get your head away from the competition. In England, everyone around you is a competitor, everyone is trying to do more and improve."

What is clear in the teenager's head is that sacrifices are needed if he is to become the first Singaporean to earn a pro contract with a second-tier English club.

"I know that I have an opportunity here, and I'm focused on doing the best I can to earn that pro contract," he said.