The contrast between the joyous excesses of a Chelsea Under-18s and the harsher learning curve some of those players then go on to experience at Development Squad level remains a stark and very real one.
That isn’t to say that the Dev Squad aren’t successful in their own right; a Checkatrade Trophy Semi Final run and another trip to the UEFA Youth League Final means the 2017-18 season was impressive in itself, but it’s at this time when most youngsters begin to learn more about themselves and perhaps begin to reappraise their readiness for senior professional football, and have to balance the good against the not so good as they reflect on their campaign.
You know the story by now; the best teenagers head off and join the Loan Army, leaving Joe Edwards with a crop of 17, 18 and 19 year-olds to handle the rigours of the Premier League 2 campaign, an Under-23 competition where the Blues are the youngest team on the pitch in almost every match. It’s a hard task for any club, let alone one of the more youthful sides around, and it’s to their immense credit that they were not only the last academy team left standing in the Checkatrade Trophy, playing against experienced men’s teams, and they were one game away from playing a legitimate cup final at Wembley.
Yet that, and the UEFA Youth League Final defeat to Barcelona, will linger as ‘what if?’ moments for Edwards and his players over the summer break. Typically vibrant, aggressive and keen to play on the front foot, they rather withdrew into themselves in those big matches, allowing the opposition to take charge, and instead adopted a more reactive approach. Lincoln’s physicality certainly brought specific requirements – whether Trevoh Chalobah’s deployment in midfield in some of the biggest matches was the right decision is for another day – but rather than losing on penalties, a more assertive Blues performance could have yielded greater reward.
They managed that for a strong twenty minute spell in the second half at Sincil Bank, not coincidentally when Callum Hudson-Odoi saw more of the ball after being starved of it for most of the contest but, having seen off Oxford and Portsmouth quite confidently in the preceding knockout rounds, it was slightly jarring to see them concede so much possession and territory against a team from the division below those two sides, albeit a far more aggressive and uncompromising one. Maybe that’s too harsh – they were a spot-kick or two away from winning – but knowing what they’re capable of at their best, it’s hard not to consider how different things might have been.
Hudson-Odoi, the team’s talisman in a season where only Liverpool beat them over ninety minutes in matches he started, was uncharacteristically quiet in the Nyon weekend for UEFA’s Under-19 spectacular too. The squad had already been given fair warning in the Friday Semi Final win over FC Porto as to the standards they needed to find, but they failed to heed it, and were resoundingly beaten by Barcelona in a defeat that Edwards described as “devastating”, remarking that his team “didn’t get anywhere near the standards we normally set for ourselves”.
In truth, it was a somewhat uncertain season from the start and particularly in Europe, where positive outcomes sometimes masked performances that weren’t quite as exhilarating as those of their predecessors. With only one league win until mid-November, they also lost for just the third time in UYL history when Roma turned up at Cobham and won 2-0, but to their credit they rebounded well and lost just twice between the start of December and the middle of March. It was then that Hudson-Odoi came into his own, running riot every time he played, and at one stage contributing eleven goals and six assists in a ten-game spell for club and country. His rise was unstoppable and he deservedly joined Ethan Ampadu, Kyle Scott and Dujon Sterling in making his first-team debut under Antonio Conte.
Perhaps they just ran out of steam in the end; fixtures came thick and fast from March through to May, and they lost three of their last four matches in the league to settle for 8th place in the 12-team PL2. After losing at home to Tottenham Hotspur a week before the Porto match, the players were reminded of their responsibility to remain focused and to dig deep with big prizes at stake. They didn’t win a single game in ninety minutes after that, although those who dropped back down to the FA Youth Cup squad did at least have the opportunity to make amends, helping the Blues to a record fifth title in a row. That neat juxtaposition rather summed up the journey from youth team football into the Development Squad environment; the likes of Hudson-Odoi and Reece James made it look easy, but the majority of their team-mates are taking a little longer to come along, and understandably so.
So there were valuable learning experiences all round, for the players and the coaching staff alike, and they’ll be richer for their disappointments whilst preparing for 2018-19. How the fixture list shapes up for the forthcoming campaign will be interesting as, compared to some other Category One clubs, Chelsea don’t play that much football. The PL2 offers 22 league games, the Checkatrade Trophy ranges from three through to a maximum of eight, whilst another European campaign will bring a minimum of four more and more than likely six before getting into the knockout rounds as the Blues will enter the domestic champions path for the first time. Having not entered into either the Premier League Cup or the Premier League International Cup, the most games anyone too old for Europe could have played in this season was 29, something Ruben Sammut achieved as the Blues’ only ever-present.
Isaac Christie-Davies, on the other hand, played only seventeen times, Richard Nartey just ten, and Kyle Scott eleven. At the extreme end of the scale, Swansea’s Under-23s played 39 matches in a campaign where reaching every cup final could have seen them hit 46, but it was a logistical issue as much as anything for Chelsea to fulfil their schedule this season as it was. Whilst a few more matches would serve some of the older players better, they simply might not have the numbers to make it work, and those players would perhaps be better served by going out on loan or making a clean break and seeking a more permanent departure.
Neil Bath spoke last summer of the academy’s desire to get their best and brightest out into the senior game at younger ages, rather than wasting their time playing in what is a sub-par competition that the Premier League will forever struggle to make relevant, for the simple fact that it cannot amply recreate the visceral reality of playing for points and livelihoods that exists there. That’s fine if you take the PL2 for what it is; a competition that players who need a bit more time to mature mentally, technically or physically, and that naturally results in more variance in performance and outcome once players leave youth football. If you take accept that, and treat it with the necessary respect, you can come out of it at the end of the season with a clearer picture of the road ahead. And, after all, isn’t that always the aim in youth development?