With the club’s academy experiencing a golden era, Chelsea must capitalize and develop first-team players that could forge the very identity of the club in years to come.
“Where were you when we were shit?” bellowed the Chelsea supporters at Stamford Bridge, witnessing something of a cathartic display from their players against Sunderland following the departure of Jose Mourinho. Every goal on the day was greeted with chants of “Jose Mourinho!”, with much accusatory pointing towards the players at every crescendo.
The outpouring of emotion from the home supporters left nobody – least of all club owner Roman Abramovich – in any doubt of who they blamed for the catastrophic season the Blues had had. In retrospect, it wasn’t at all surprising. Juxtaposed with ‘the individual’ (as Michael Emenalo condescendingly termed Mourinho) who had given his sweat, blood and tears to put the club on the world map, whose unforgettable, heart-on-the-sleeve expressions of unadulterated emotion endeared him to supporters like no other manager, the relatively new players seemed distant and disinterested.
Although the Mourinho chants have died down after Guus Hiddink’s arrival over the past few weeks, one suspects it is merely out of respect for the Dutchman, who has been successful during his brief spell as Chelsea manager in the past. Quite simply, the current Chelsea side is difficult for the fans to relate to, or get as emotionally involved with, as they could with the team of John Terry, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, later joined by the likes of Michael Essien and Michael Ballack.
The current team fails to elicit the same visceral emotion as the team of the past did on a weekly basis. Some fans attribute it to a lack of leadership, while others simply believe the players don’t care enough.
Over the years, the identity of Chelsea Football Club has largely depended on the strength of personality of its icons – on Gianfranco Zola, Terry, Lampard and Drogba, among several others – rather than a core footballing philosophy. The dearth of such icons in the current team, then, has led to a feeling of something approaching apathy in terms of the situation the players find themselves in this season. There is, however, a special group of players who can fill the hole vacated by the legends of a bygone era.
Chelsea’s youth academy is experiencing a golden generation at the moment, with the club nurturing some of the finest young talents the academy has ever seen. This is backed up not only by anecdotal evidence from the likes of Jody Morris and Frank Sinclair – two former graduates of the academy who are often featured on Chelsea TV as pundits for youth games, but has also been borne out by the success achieved over different youth levels by largely the same core group of players.
After a dry spell in the competition for nearly five decades, Chelsea have won the FA Youth Cup an incredible four times in the last five seasons, while also winning the U21 Premier League and the UEFA Youth League during this period. The likes of Andreas Christensen, Lewis Baker, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jeremie Boga, Charly Musonda, Isaiah Brown and Dominic Solanke have been key to this golden period for the Blues’ academy, and given they have spent their most crucial formative years at Cobham, growing up at the club and watching a legendary era of Blues footballers, these academy youngsters could have a huge role to play in the future.
John Terry is the last academy graduate to really establish himself in the first team, but also the last bastion of one of the strongest ‘spines’ the Premier League has seen. Chelsea face an existential crisis in trying to replace him, but it is crucial they look for future John Terrys from within. Academy players who have been nurtured at the club and understand its culture, who have a connection with the fans, and more crucially, who can rekindle the supporters’ sense of belonging are better placed to come close to filling Terry’s shoes than a player bought from one of Europe’s top leagues.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s goal against Scunthorpe was special for the boy who has been at the club since the age of 8, but also for the Stamford Bridge faithful who have watched him grow into the strapping, talented young footballer he is today. The often-inscrutable Roman Abramovich was also evidently overjoyed, jumping out of his seat to applaud the 19-year-old’s goal, his face red with excitement. In that moment of euphoria, the stadium was together, emotionally invested in a player they felt was one of them. Although not impossible, it takes years to forge that same connection with players that are bought by the club.
Although the notion that several Chelsea graduates can be in the first team at the same time seems like hopeless romanticism, perhaps an anachronistic sentiment in the modern-day football world of super-agents, FIFA stars and eye-watering transfer fees, Europe’s elite like Barcelona and Bayern Munich have shown how beneficial it can be to have a core of players who have been brought up at the club, if not playing with each other from younger age-levels. More importantly, Chelsea genuinely have the talent to pull it off, if there is a real willingness to do so from the club hierarchy.
If it were to happen, there is little doubt the Blues would no longer be faced with an identity crisis, while the Chelsea brand would also be benefited – similar to Manchester United’s ‘class of 92’. That is not to say the club should play the academy players simply for the sake of it, or throw caution to the wind as far as results are concerned, but there has to be a concrete plan to develop some of them into the first-class top-flight footballers they can be. If there is one, it clearly isn’t working.
Chelsea are sitting on a veritable diamond mine, but seem intent on importing from elsewhere. The strategy at the moment seems to be to uncover diamonds in the rough, begin cutting and polishing them, and then simply will them to become Kohinoors. Nathaniel Chalobah is an excellent case in point.
Chalobah joined the club at the age of 10, began playing for the U21s (the Reserves as they were then known) by the age of 15, and represented (often captained) England at various youth levels throughout his career. After a hugely successful loan spell at Watford in 2012-2013 under Zola, Chelsea opted to loan him out to Nottingham Forest, signing a central midfielder in Marco van Ginkel from Vitesse Arnhem to be a part of the first-team squad.
Something that supporters who are not as taken with the academy’s youngsters as others never seem to recognise – but the club surely does – is that the worst thing that can happen to a young player is stagnation. Chalobah had excelled at the level below the Premier League, and needed to be challenged at a higher level. A player’s ‘potential’ is not a constant, but is the product of several factors – physical and emotional – affecting the player at a given time. Momentum is crucial. This is where the club have failed repeatedly over recent seasons. The vicious cycle of youngsters failing to get opportunities at Chelsea, and then requiring that elite-level experience to break into the Chelsea first-team, needs to be brought to an end.
This football season has been the worst in a long while for the club, but it has presented them with an incredible opportunity. Chelsea have done well to show commitment to developing Loftus-Cheek, but they now need to go further and try and extract something of value from this enduring nightmare of a campaign. The Blues will not get relegated, and whether or not Hiddink is willing to say it in as many words, neither will they finish in the top four. Finishing in any of the positions in between is almost arbitrary, and there is no reason why the rest of the season cannot be devoted to getting the likes of Loftus-Cheek closer to being ready for elite-level football on a weekly basis.
Neither him nor academy defender Ola Aina – both England U21 internationals – are ready to be starters for a team competing for the top prizes in Europe. This season, Chelsea are far from that. The club may choose to keep the sidewheels on and give the two only a few minutes here and there, but the least they can do is put them on the bike.
In the summer, Abramovich, the board and technical director Michael Emenalo will have the unenviable task of choosing a permanent successor to Mourinho. If the billionaire owner really wants to see major returns on the money he has invested in the academy, perhaps the choice of the next manager should reflect that. A ‘coach’ (rather than a ‘manager’) who takes an active interest in developing young players – like Mauricio Pochettino – could be considered.
Ultimately, the club need to build a culture of youth development and promotion to the first-team. It will not happen overnight, but the sheer ability among this batch of youngsters means there is a compelling case for why it should start now. The success of such a change in tact by the club will be gauged in different ways by different people.
But perhaps Chelsea will have achieved some semblance of it when a club-grown youngster is not trotted about in front of supporters as some sort of rare species, or when the club’s manager will not try and appease fans with the same hackneyed phrases and platitudes, or when there will be no saccharine pieces from journalists the day after a youngster jogs about on the pitch for a few minutes. The Blues’ faithful won’t have to build castles in the air, only attend Stamford Bridge of a Saturday afternoon to see club-grown players excelling in the first-team.
The time for Chelsea to make a true commitment – beyond just financing a superbly-run academy – is now. Failure to learn their lessons from history could mean wasting one of the greatest generations of academy players the club has ever seen.