It was truly an historic Friday.
League titles were secured by Chelsea at all levels, with Antonio Conte’s first team following in the remarkable footsteps of Jody Morris’ Under-18s, who completed the third and final leg of an unprecedented treble as they beat Reading 3-0 at Cobham to add the Under-18 Premier League crown to their Southern section and FA Youth Cup triumphs.
For Michy Batshuayi, see Conor Gallagher, Harvey St Clair, and Mason Mount. For a dogged, defensive and determined West Brom, see a very hard-working Reading side equally as inclined to play the role of party-pooper – and they almost succeeded as well. This Chelsea academy team is made of stern stuff, however, and they weren’t to be denied a first national league title in 33 years as they came into their own and secured the silverware in style.
Tuesday’s 3-1 win over Arsenal had set the table for the young Blues, but they knew the job wasn’t yet done. Anything other than a win in the early Cobham summer sun against the Royals would leave Arsenal in the ascendancy in their final match of the season at home to West Ham the following day, and on top of tired legs they were without Callum Hudson-Odoi, George McEachran, Jonathan Panzo, Marc Guehi and Juan Castillo due to international duty, Tariq Uwakwe to illness, and Reece James and Richard Nartey to injury.
Their squad depth runs deep though, and being able to call upon the likes of Mount, Dujon Sterling, Iké Ugbo, Trevoh Chalobah and Jacob Maddox more than made up for the absentees. Reading’s season ended a few weeks ago and they took the opportunity to hand starts to a couple of younger players but, adopting a 5-4-1 formation, their intentions were clear from the start.
Chelsea played into their hands somewhat with sloppy football of their own, but the visitors were successful in slowing the pace of the game to a crawl, taking their full allocation of time over dead balls, and packing as many neon-green shirts behind the ball as they could. They were the first to threaten in attack too though, with Jack Nolan stinging Jamie Cumming’s hands from distance, looking every inch the side with no pressure on them.
The nerves, however, were getting the better of the hosts. Quick thinking from Cumming saw him play a simple long ball over the top of a sleepy Reading rearguard, setting Ugbo clear on goal with 50 yards of grass ahead of him, but the 25-goal hitman belied his prolific campaign by slotting his finish wide of the target. Mount, Maddox and Cole Dasilva cut equally frustrated figures in short order as they tried and failed to find a way through, whilst Mount himself went closer still with a curling effort that didn’t quite come back inside enough to tuck inside the far post.
Manager Morris shuffled the pack repeatedly, dropping the starting 3-4-3 shape and adopting a 4-diamond-2 with Sterling pressed into duty as an auxiliary centre-forward, whilst Ugbo was replaced by the league’s leading scorer Martell Taylor-Crossdale at half time. Whatever was said to his young charges at the break worked though, as they slowly but surely turned into the team that has so stunningly swept all before them this year.
Yet they had Cumming to thank for even being in the game at all. His remarkable reflex save from a Reading corner minutes after the restart was all about instincts and reactions, somehow clawing the ball away from under his own crossbar with one hand to keep his clean sheet intact. Spurred on by that, Mount, Maddox and Luke McCormick peppered Luke Driscoll’s Reading goal without success, but with Morris preparing to throw caution to the wind and introduce even more attacking firepower, they broke the deadlock.
A carefully-constructed move down the right involving Dasilva, Mount, and Taylor-Crossdale eventually found the feet of Gallagher, who this week was named as the club’s academy Scholar of the Year, and the best player on the park gleefully curled a sumptuous finish into the top corner from the edge of the six yard box to break Reading’s resistance.
Cumming threw himself in danger’s way to prevent Nolan from equalising and, after Morris did finally introduce St Clair and schoolboy Tariq Lamptey, they boys removed any doubt. The pressing and work rate off the ball that has been drilled into them from the first day of pre-season paid dividends in the 37th and final fixture when they caused a turnover on the edge of the Reading area; McCormick’s shot was beaten away by Driscoll, but only into the path of St Clair, who slammed in his 8th of the season for 2-0.
Lamptey, who provided a pugnacious and energetic spark on the right, laid on the third for captain Mount with a fifteen minutes remaining for the third, setting up joyous scenes at full time when the goalscorer, flanked by McCormick, Josh Grant, and a host of team-mates who’ve donned the captain’s armband since August, lifted the Under-18 Premier League trophy aloft in front of friends, family and academy staff. The sun was setting behind them, but for this group, a bright future lies ahead.
Chelsea: Cumming, Colley, T.Chalobah, Grant (St Clair 62), C.Dasilva, McCormick, Sterling, Gallagher, Ugbo (Taylor-Crossdale 45), Mount (c), Maddox (Lamptey 70)
Subs not Used: Thompson, Wakely
Goals: Gallagher ’57, St Clair ’70, Mount ‘75
Reading: Driscoll, Howe, Odiamyo, Philby (Green 57), Holmes (c), Coleman, Rollinson (Sparta 79), Holsgrove, Moore (Buchanan 84), Nolan, Medford-Smith
Subs not Used: Desbois, Wilson