If you tap a destination into your SatNav you’ll get more than one route to your destination. Some of them will be longer than others, some will come with different obstacles, but you’ll get there most of the time.
For Chelsea’s Development Squad, the 2018-19 season looked rather similar to the 2017-18 campaign, at least on paper. Reaching the UEFA Youth League Final only to lose at the last, they finished in the middle of the pack in Premier League 2 with as many wins as defeats, and went well enough in the Checkatrade Trophy to earn plenty of respectability. Yet, just as no two routes on a journey are the same, the path trodden by this year’s crop was markedly different by comparison to their predecessors.
When players returned for pre-season training back in July, Joe Edwards was greeted with a fresh-faced and relatively inexperienced squad for this level, shorn of seven of the ten leading appearance makers from last term. Ruben Sammut, Reece James, Trevoh Chalobah, Jacob Maddox, Harvey St Clair, Dujon Sterling and Callum Hudson-Odoi all moved on to bigger and better things, leaving Richard Nartey as the oldest player in the team, as he turned 20 just a month into the new season.
That’s how they want it at Cobham though. Development football serves a purpose, but the real challenge is to get prospects into senior football at the earliest and most convenient opportunity, so while other clubs are happy to field teams of 21 and 22 year-olds Chelsea have been among the very youngest at Under-23 level for almost a decade now. The new blood for 18-19 arrived fresh off the back of an historic academy quadruple, achieved with Jody Morris’ youth team, with a record fifth successive FA Youth Cup triumph their crowning accomplishment.
Their talent has rarely been in doubt, but this group in particular had earned rave reviews for their commitment and work ethic, and it was that fundamental principle that Edwards returned to when discussing his side’s fortunes over the last ten months. The academy staff know that these boys will face adversity far more often as they go up the age groups than they’ve ever experienced before, and in learning how to deal with it, they’re a step closer to being ready to tackle the unrelenting world of professional football.
In that regard, the Checkatrade Trophy once again provided an invaluable opportunity to test their mettle against fully-fledged Football League sides. Certainly, some teams take the competition more seriously than others, and so a 4-0 win against a very young Swindon Town eleven to open the season wasn’t as emphatic as it looked on paper, but it did set the tone for what was to come. Having spent the summer implementing a 3-5-2 shape that accentuated their strengths – depth in central midfield, threats at wing-back, and potent goalscorers for the two forward spots – they were curiously superb away from home while struggling on their own patch.
Perhaps that was a product of their natural counter-attacking talent, but to lose just twice on the road in nine outings before Christmas, while waiting until December for their first home victory was an unexpected development that the club struggled to solve. The football was largely of good quality, and the plan was being stuck to, but the results didn’t correspond. A superstitious switch of home dugouts at Aldershot’s EBB Stadium failed to yield a change of fortunes but, as these things tend to go, there was a better balance when everyone returned for the start of 2019.
That was when their European campaign really kicked into gear. Having been forced into entering the domestic champions path of the UEFA Youth League for the first time, they found the likes of Molde and Elfsborg far less of a threat than their usual continental counterparts, and scored 23 goals across four matches against their Scandinavian foes. A playoff against Monaco was a bigger ask by comparison, but they produced arguably their performance of the season to emerge 3-1 winners, with two goals from top scorer Charlie Brown and a Conor Gallagher free kick each among the finest strikes you’ll see.
Montpellier ran them close in the Round of 16 before Luke McCormick intervened late on, and the captain was front and centre in a late turn-around against Dinamo Zagreb in the last eight, before repeating the trick against Barcelona in the Semi Final. The plan had been for him to consider a loan move mid-season, when he turned 20, but he suffered a stress fracture of the back in August and it took until March before he was in a position to return to full-time duty.
How his absence was felt. As much of a heart-and-soul player as you’ll come across, he chipped in with nine goals and seven assists from an attacking midfield role in just sixteen appearances, a remarkable return for a player who previously spent time in defensive midfield and out wide, having not initially been extended the offer of a scholarship, and had to wait almost a year after turning seventeen before being offered a professional contract.
Modern young footballers love to parrot the phrase ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’ and, as much as McCormick has been the embodiment of how much a player’s game can be raised by sheer application alone, the theme ran through the heart of this squad. They went to League One’s Plymouth and destroyed them 5-0, they hosted an aggressive and intimidating Wimbledon and bested them at Stamford Bridge, and they had chances to do the same against playoff-chasing Peterborough before being blown away in a nine-minute rude awakening that gave them plenty to ponder.
They won at Manchester City, they won at Arsenal, they drew at Spurs. They produced the goods in the big moments and, even in defeat, they were there or thereabouts. September’s 3-1 home defeat to Liverpool doesn’t look overly-impressive on paper, but from the highlights alone of that afternoon, you’ll come away wondering how they didn’t get something from the match. Similar can be said of the return fixture on Merseyside, where they produced some of their finest football of the season, only to suffer a late defeat.
In 2017-18, Hudson-Odoi ran riot, James was imperious at the back, and there were a combined 200+ senior appearances awaiting them in the months that followed (not to mention England debuts), but when things went wrong at the end of the season the feeling around the academy was that they hadn’t done themselves justice. There were warning signs in defeat against Arsenal and Tottenham, and even in their Semi Final win against Porto in Switzerland, before losing to Barcelona in as pale an imitation of a Chelsea youth side as there has been in recent years.
This time around they left everything out there and, where it wasn’t enough, there were fewer regrets. Maybe they had no right to even make it back to Nyon, let alone the Final, and they only led for nine minutes of European knockout football. At the top of the PL2 table, Everton won a second title in three years with a squad considerably older by comparison, and with half a dozen players signed expressly for that purpose (making a mockery of manager David Unsworth’s claims that they were up against bigger and richer teams capable of doing exactly the same thing). Chelsea finished the season having given thirty combined appearances to Ian Maatsen and Faustino Anjorin, two first-year scholars who made their debuts aged just 16, and who looked the part in every way possible.
That’s not just the future; it’s the here and now. As we approach an off-season where an ever-increasing number of the squad are considering their futures in West London, the chameleonic Development Squad could be forced into another change of face, one that will see graduating Under-18s assimilated alongside new Under-23 leaders and maybe one or two new faces brought in from grass roots football or elsewhere. Juan Castillo, George McEachran, Joseph Colley, Richard Nartey, Josh Grant, Martell Taylor-Crossdale and Tariq Uwakwe are all out of contract at the end of June; together they played 163 games this season and, with the pathway into Maurizio Sarri’s first team no clearer now than it was when he arrived, players are exploring alternative options at younger ages.
Marcin Bułka was limited to just five outings because he made it clear that his future lay elsewhere before anyone else, and as news emerged over the Bank Holiday weekend that he’s to sign a pre-contract with Paris Saint-Germain the only question is ‘who’s next?’. Whatever happens, the work will continue at Cobham, for players and staff alike, and they’ll be back next season bidding to produce the next crop of superstars. It’ll be as fascinating as always.