At the end of most seasons, Chelsea’s youth team usually win something. Each success is met with glances toward the senior squad and the perennial discomfort around the lack of academy graduates in the first team. The truism of John Terry as the last academy boy to make a lasting impact persists. For all the youth success, the complex system of loans, the partnership with Vitesse and the investment into the academy, Chelsea have largely failed to utilise their youth system for its main purpose: to develop first-team players.
Previously, there had been accusations that it was the managers in charge that inhibited youth development. Jose Mourinho, especially, was cast as a manager who does not readily give youth its chance. So much so that on arrival at Manchester United, a club with youth development as part of its identity, Mourinho produced the now infamous “list” of young players that he had given debuts to. But even with Mourinho gone and Antonio Conte in place, there has been little progress by the way of youth.
This season, just three young players have even made it onto the pitch for Chelsea in the Premier League. Ola Aina has enjoyed nine minutes of action, Nathaniel Chalobah has seventy-one minutes and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who was held up as an exemplar under Gus Hiddink last season, has played just fourteen minutes so far. Conte had spoken of his enthusiasm for Chelsea’s youth when arriving last summer. Now, half a season on, that looks like yet another false dawn for Chelsea’s youth system.
The failure of Chelsea’s youth policy has, for some years, been symbolised by the experience of Patrick Bamford. This week, Bamford has finally left Stamford Bridge, signing for Middlesbrough on a permanent deal after a bundle of loan spells around the Championship and the lower reaches of the Premier League. But in four years at the club, the young striker was not given a single start, not even a chance to impress for ninety minutes. Taken in isolation, Bamford’s case may not be particularly worrying: clubs sign young players who fail to make the grade on a regular basis. But, with Chelsea, there is always a feeling that this problem runs deeper. Bamford is just one of many who have not been given an opportunity and the prospects for the current set of players dominating European youth football may be similar. There is not yet a clear roadmap to first-team football for Kasey Palmer and Tammy Abraham. Chelsea need to make one.
Yet with Chelsea and youth football there is one huge, obvious elephant in the room: they are top of the league. Despite the defeat against Tottenham and the Diego Costa situation, they are still favourites to win title this season. Youth, at least in terms of the prospects for winning, is not particularly pressing subject. For years, they have been criticised for failing to develop their own talent and for years they have continued to enjoy success regardless.
Developing youth is seen, in England, as something worthwhile, something wholesome, but if success comes without it, even in spite of it, is there any real need? Why bother giving Tammy Abraham a chance up front when Roman Abramovich’s wealth can secure a ready-made international star?
The answer, though not particularly clear, is that Chelsea evidently care about their youth system. They take pride in their achievements at youth level and their category one status. After the most recent UEFA Youth League win, technical director Michael Emenalo elaborated on these themes in an interview with ESPN. Everyone at Chelsea, Emenalo said, wants academy graduates to make it at the club. ”The owner wants it, the first-team coach wants it, the academy manager wants it, I want it, the board want it, everybody wants this to happen,” he said. “Not just because it feels good, though it is nice to have this backbone that fans can relate to and support. But with the investment we are making [in youth development] the competition that we have [in the Premier League] you can’t just buy your way out of trouble all the time.”
Chelsea, then, by their own definitions and yardsticks, are failing with their youth policy. They may not need academy graduates for Premier League success but if, as Emenalo says, they are doing everything to provide first-team pathways for young players, their policy is not bearing fruition. Bamford, though an extreme case, is just one of many to fall by the wayside. There will likely be many more.