"I'm spinning plates," Huw Jennings says. "I don't trust people who say they aren't busy." We are sitting in his office at Fulham's training ground in Motspur Park and he is talking about his typical day; it does not quite last 12 hours but it is close.

Jennings, Fulham's academy director, is not complaining, though. Far from it. Not many people look out of their office window and see a football pitch. There are worse places to be. Laughter can be heard in the room next door. "Probably something I should suppress," he jokes. This does seem like a happy, welcoming place to work – and an increasingly successful one too.

While Fulham are in danger of relegation from the Premier League, at least their youth system gives cause for optimism. Fulham are top of the Under-21 Premier League, three points ahead of Chelsea, and their under-18s have won three successive titles, explaining why many supporters have been calling for their youngsters to be integrated into an ageing first team.

That never seemed possible when Martin Jol was in charge but there has been a shift since René Meulensteen took over in December and Sunday's 2-2 draw at Manchester United featured an excellent performance by Dan Burn, a 21-year-old defender. Muamer Tankovic, an 18-year-old Swedish forward, also impressed on his first league start.

Fulham do not have a great record of producing players but that is starting to change. Jennings was formerly Southampton's academy director and helped establish one of the finest production lines in the country, finding Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Adam Lallana. Jennings has been joined at Fulham by two of his colleagues from those days, Malcolm Elias and Steve Wigley, and Southampton's current success can be partially attributed to them all.

Jennings, who spent 12 years as a teacher in a comprehensive school, left Southampton in 2006 because he was unsure about their long-term future and joined the Premier League, before being tempted to Fulham by Alistair Mackintosh, the club's chief executive. Mackintosh had been praised for his emphasis on youth when he was at Manchester City.

"At Man City, with very little resources because they slumped through the divisions, they re-emerged on the back of a really vibrant youth policy," Jennings says. "He [Alistair] made it clear to me that at Fulham he'd like to give youth an opportunity because perhaps in the past that's not been the case. The excitement for me was to go into a club where there hadn't been a DNA for youth and hoping to create one.

"One of the best things is I inherited a terrific group of staff who just needed to be liberated by a vision. I found a little bit that the academy was viewed as the thing that we had to have and it better be quiet and stay in the corner, otherwise if it caused any mischief we might not have to have it.

"Now maybe that's being a bit harsh on the way the club was set up but that was the feeling amongst some of the staff, so what I tried to do was set about trying to develop our infrastructure and programme, and be a place where young players would want to come. Hopefully we're on that road."

So what's the secret? "You've got to have quality recruitment," Jennings says. "There's a saying: it's not just about the players you recruit that matter, it's also about the players you don't."

He accepts that young players may be dazzled by the glamour of Chelsea but Fulham are quietly excited about their youngsters. Moussa Dembélé, the French forward who was signed from Paris Saint-Germain, and Patrick Roberts, a tricky English winger, who are both 17, have caught the eye. Jennings is reluctant to place unnecessary pressure on these kids. Instead he mentions "pathways" a lot and stresses the importance of being patient and dealing with disappointment. Special players like Walcott whizz straight into the first team and others need time. Jennings cites the case of Burn, who was excellent at United.

"You can't force it," he says. "There's got to be the right stepping stones. If we take Dan Burn, who's played two games for the first team, his stepping stone started at Darlington, where we identified his potential. We then developed him in our way, then he plays for Yeovil in League One. Then he goes to Birmingham, a club that's a bit bigger. Now he's back at Fulham for a few games. It's fascinating to see the way he's progressed. At club level people want players in a team before they're ready for it.

"If I reflect back on the period with Kerim Frei, he got into the team a bit early as a 17-year-old and instantly the crowd took to him because he's a dribbler and he's exciting to watch. But things didn't go as well for Kerim as people hoped and, reflecting back, we forced him into the team a bit too early. As a result he missed out on some of those steps."

Jennings does not yearn for the days when youngsters cleaned the senior pros' boots. "We've got to take the best principles and use them in a modern context," he says. "On the subject of cleaning boots, I actually think an affinity with senior players helps. We invite players to come in and do Q&As with the young players. It's good education both ways actually, the senior players quite enjoy it. We have a lot of mentoring between the senior players and the youngsters. It's informal but it helps in a way that actually is about learning about football. Develop a link and an appreciation between the players. It's about football, not whether the studs look shiny."

Jennings praises Meulensteen for the way he has integrated youngsters into his training sessions. While doubts remain about Meulensteen's managerial credentials, given that Fulham have dropped to the bottom of the Premier League under him, the Dutchman has an excellent record of working with young players and has not been afraid to use them.

There have been regular games between the first team and the youth team in training. The youngsters have won a few but Jennings is more interested in how they play. "What's it like in a practice match against Brede Hangeland?" he says. "You have to demonstrate that you're not thinking it's Brede Hangeland."

Equally, Jennings recognises that a winning mentality is crucial and believes that England must learn how to handle tournament play. "We've just taken our under-18s to an indoor tournament in Germany for the fifth year in a row," he says. "It's five v five, 30 minutes a game, you're right in the industrial heartland of Germany playing against teams like Schalke, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Dortmund, Hertha Berlin, Hamburg.

"What you notice about the Germans is they know how to win at that age. Now we finished fourth out of 28 teams and we don't play indoor football on a regular basis. But you work it out and what it's done for our youngsters is it's opened their eyes on how to get the competitive nature right because we beat Mönchengladbach on penalties in the quarter-final. You certainly realise in that situation how you give young players the preparation they may need for later. England national teams need to know how to play at tournament level.

"You can't succeed at this level if you're not a winner. Losing sometimes is good. You learn a lot but if you haven't got a winning mentality, you don't come here. I take that from a very young age. Results don't matter – a winning mentality does." Perhaps Fulham will find one with Jennings around.