When beginning to evaluate Chelsea’s 2018-19 Under-18 season, there are a few things to address up front.
The first of those is that success is not guaranteed. Simply because Chelsea won back-to-back league titles, four consecutive regional crowns and a record five FA Youth Cups in a row does not mean they will win silverware for ever more. It’s a central part of the academy’s manifesto for success, sure, but a year without trophies only serves to reinforce just how remarkable their winning run has been in the first place.
The second is to understand that this year represented a fresh start. Jody Morris’ departure to join Frank Lampard at Derby County led to Andy Myers becoming the 22nd manager of the youth team at Chelsea, and almost all of the chief protagonists from the historic quadruple-winning side of 2017-18 moved on to bigger and better things. Some, like Marc Guehi, Conor Gallagher and George McEachran, simply graduated through age and moved on to Development Squad football, while Jonathan Panzo left on a permanent basis to seek opportunities overseas with Monaco. Others, Tariq Lamptey and Billy Gilmour among them, made that step up a year early in search of sterner tests; Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ethan Ampadu went a stage further and became full-time members of the first-team squad.
The third is subsequently how young they were. A class of fourteen first-year scholars were welcomed last July, but saw Faustino Anjorin and Ian Maatsen move up to Joe Edwards’ Under-23 squad before turning 17, leaving an even younger and more inexperienced group behind. No team gave more league minutes to first-year scholars this season than Chelsea; their 66% representation for the age group was 5% more than anyone else and 20% above the league average, while their combined 73% distribution of playing time to first-years or schoolboys was also a nationwide high. In competing with Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur for the title, they faced some of the most experienced youth teams around; the former called upon second-years for 50% of their minutes, while Spurs led the Under-18 league with 65% of their playing time going to their oldest players.
If that wasn’t enough of a challenge in itself, the fourth item to address is how this particular group of players started their scholarships. The EPPP, which was ratified in 2013, made provisions for clubs to oversee the education of their own players. Chelsea’s partnership with Glyn School has seen an increasing number of Year 11 students (since extended to Years 9 and 10) leave their previous educational establishments and spend their days at Cobham, splitting their time equally between the classroom and the training pitch.
It’s not as glamourous as it sounds either; days can begin at 8am and run past 6pm in the evening and it sometimes requires boys aged 14 or 15 to leave their family home and move in with a ‘digs’ family, alongside a first-year scholar or two, effectively beginning their scholarships early. The sacrifices to become a professional footballer are affecting boys at increasingly younger ages and often go unspoken of when analysing development pathways.
It is, however, an advantage to be in the system before becoming a scholar. Having time to grow accustomed to the environment, the day-to-day life of an aspiring footballer, and the demands on time allow players to hit the ground running when they’re done with formal education. Only two of that fourteen-man group were able to enjoy that experience though, as the others either stayed in their original school by choice, or through not being extended the offer of a switch by Chelsea. Subsequently, they came into the new season having to balance their new lifestyle on the fly, without much by way of experience from older players, and with the burden of responsibility to pick up the baton and carry the same high standards as those that had gone before them.
Whatever team ended up falling short in the Youth Cup in particular was likely to be looked upon differently, but this was no poor campaign by any reasonable standard. They finished with the second-best defensive record in the country, conceding one goal more than Southern champions Arsenal, and finished third behind their two North London rivals despite giving up so much in age and experience (not to mention the talent assembled on both sides of that divide, some of the finest in Europe).
A twelve-match unbeaten league run between September and March would’ve been enough to challenge more closely in most years, but both teams above them won 20 of their 22 matches. Chelsea only lost to those two teams, plus Manchester United and Brighton, reflecting the calibre of team it took to take them down.
The two reverses against United in particular, both in December, were instructive. An all-or-nothing League Cup match in which Myers fielded something of a shadow team against the Reds’ first-team saw them relinquish their hold on that trophy, while their Youth Cup exit nine days later saw Mason Greenwood – later to play for the first team under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – score a hat-trick en route to 31 goals in competitions to seal their fate. Even then, the Blues handed their foes at least three of the goals in their 4-3 defeat on a plate, almost rescuing matters late on, and all without Hudson-Odoi or Ampadu, who remained eligible.
Playing them would have defeated the purpose of the academy though. Their successful ascent into the first-team at Stamford Bridge is what it’s all about. As they’ve thrived, as Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andreas Christensen have grown in stature and as numerous promising loanees go about their business at far-flung locations, we’re reminded that most of them could still be playing age-group football. Chelsea have long since set the bar for giving the next generation a look ahead of time, and as nine of next season’s scholars made their Under-18 debuts this season, we can look forward with promise to what’s to come.
That group has grown accustomed to success as well. National treble winners at Under-15 level, they won the Under-16 Premier League Cup this term after beating Norwich (4-0), Newcastle (6-0), Man Utd (6-0), Man City (4-1) and Tottenham (3-2) before dismantling Arsenal 5-2 on their own patch in March’s Final. With a clutch of internationals among them, they’re charged with restoring the club’s place at the forefront of academy football next term.
As they step through the doors as full-time scholars in July, they’ll join senior cohorts better for the experiences of the year just gone. Thierno Ballo’s versatility, work rate and leadership saw him become one of Myers’ most reliable options in his first year in England, Henry Lawrence’s underrated consistency saw him named Scholar of the Year, Marcel Lewis’ terrier-like displays in the final third yielded a team-high eight assists, and George Nunn’s move south from Crewe came with nine goals and an almost ever-present record as he, like Lewis, missed just one match all season.
It was a year of learning for the coaching staff too. Myers, previously an assistant in the junior teams, at Vitesse and then with the Development Squad, stepped out on his own and led his own team for the first time, but was sidelined for two months mid-season after rupturing his achilles. Jon Harley deputised in the matchday dugout in his absence, supported by the likes of Joe Cole and Jack Mesure, and they too will have discovered plenty about themselves that will stand them in good stead when they return from the summer breaks.
What you see of academy football in the public spotlight is mostly a superficial look, scratching the surface of a living, breathing community. The work that goes in, and the trials and tribulations that undulate throughout a football season, mostly go unseen, but they don’t half have an impact. As we reflect on the season just gone, and look forward to the ones to come, we’re reminded that the journey is just as important as the destination, and that no journey is as straightforward as it appears to be.