A defeat to sign off a generally productive and positive league season wasn’t in the script for Chelsea’s Development Squad, but a step back to take a look at the bigger picture will reveal that losing 2-1 away to Derby County will be a mere footnote for a group with remarkable promise that has come along leaps and bounds since kicking things off back in August.
The Rams had more to play for coming into the 22nd and final Premier League 2 clash of the season, knowing a win and a Southampton defeat at Manchester City would see them avoid relegation to Division 2, and first-half goals from Mason Bennett and Kellan Gordon either side of Iké Ugbo’s 25th of the campaign ensured their survival, but they were forced to work hard for it by a Blues side forced to play much of the second half with ten men following Trevoh Chalobah’s dismissal.
A flurry of loans during the January transfer window left Adi Viveash without much by way of experience and the youngest team in the division finished as they started, with five 18 year-olds joined by two 17 year-olds in the starting eleven. After a very end-of-season feel to the opening quarter of an hour, they began to find their feet as Mason Mount – sporting a mask after breaking his nose in training earlier in the week – and Cole Dasilva both went close from good positions on the left.
Derby had threatened in wide areas with Cameron Cresswell and Alex Babos guilty of wasting good headed opportunities, but it was Bennett who opened the scoring with a scorching 25-yard strike into the far corner after Chelsea had left him all alone in space outside the area. The 20 year-old, who became his club’s youngest-ever player at the tender age of 15, then played Emil Riis Jakobsen in without success, and exploited Dujon Sterling’s absence at right-back by skipping away from Richard Nartey and teasing a cross that nobody connected with.
As this season has gone on, though, Ugbo has become Chelsea’s talisman at both Under-23 and Under-18 level, and he continued his hot streak ten minutes before half time with a powerful strike beyond Jonathan Mitchell to take him up to 11 league goals – good enough for a share of third place overall – and 25 in all competitions.
Parity was to last but four minutes though, as more slack defending from the visitors allowed Gordon to restore the lead via a hefty deflection off the back of Chalobah, for whom things were about to get worse. He was shown a red card seven minutes into the second half for pulling Bennett back and denying him a clear goalscoring opportunity after Sammut had misplaced his pass, making Chelsea’s task all the more difficult.
Viveash didn’t panic, shifting to a 3-4-2 formation, and stuck with it when Nartey was forced off with a knee injury suffered when trying to prevent Jakobsen from making it 3-1.
Derby settled into a nine-man defensive shell, prepared to take their chances on the break, and made sure they were hard to break down. Kyle Scott picked and probed and did all he could to unlock the door, but neither Josimar Quintero, Sterling, nor Mount could capitalise on the glimmers of hope they had against the odds.
Luke McCormick came on for his debut at this level along with Harvey St Clair, who added his typically direct and energetic running to proceedings, but time was against them. Scott had no luck with a pair of speculative efforts from distance, whilst it needed Brad Collins to be brave to keep Cresswell from ending the game as a contest at the other end on one of Derby’s late counter-attacks.
The contest, and season, finished with a minor farce as Collins came up for a 94th-minute corner and was almost caught out as Derby cleared their lines, Scott putting in a 90-yard run to deny Bennett, but the measure of this year is as much in achieving their pre-season development targets as it is in the final league standings.
In early August, Viveash outlined what the 16-17 was about for his group to the official Chelsea FC Website, saying “We know it’s going to be a challenging season but we hope to retain the spirit and togetherness that we’ve seen over the last six weeks. Through all the ups and downs that will come, we need to remember that it’s about the long game of development. We will try to get this group of players further ahead come the end of the season compared to where they are now and that’s the bigger picture.”
Six of those who took to the pitch at Sunderland on August 14th started here at Pride Park at the very end, with four of those having played key roles in finishing 5th whilst winning another FA Youth Cup, and four others having embarked upon their maiden journeys into senior football and the loan market. The work will continue, and whilst they will head back to Cobham tonight disappointed at letting this one get away from them, they can be proud of a job well done overall.
Derby County: Mitchell, Stabana, Karic (Santos 81), Bird (Bateman 90), Wassall, Macdonald, Cresswell, Gordon, Jakobsen, Babos, Bennett
Subs not Used: Ravas, Walker, Cover
Goals: Bennett ;29, Gordon ‘39
Booked: Bennett, Bird, Cresswell, Jakobsen, Wassall
Chelsea: Collins, Sterling, Nartey (Colley 63), T.Chalobah, C.Dasilva, Sammut (McCormick 71), Maddox, Scott, Ugbo, Quintero (St Clair 71), Mount
Subs not Used: Thompson, Suljic
Goal: Ugbo ‘36
Sent Off: T.Chalobah