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The controversial Football League Trophy, with a new headline sponsor nobody seems to have heard of, returned on Tuesday night in sparsely-populated stadiums where teams of teenagers wearing numbers more closely associated with bingo than football take on senior pros who’d rather be just about anywhere else. Teams from the third and fourth tiers of the domestic game are compelled to play roughly one-third of their ‘regular’ players, else face a fine of £5,000, but despite all of that it still represents a meaningful opportunity for the next generation of talent in this country to test their mettle against established senior pros.
Chelsea have fared better than most in the three years since Under-21 teams were permitted to enter the competition, reaching the Semi Finals in 2018 with the likes of Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ethan Ampadu and Reece James in the squad. As another season of academy football got underway in Wiltshire against Swindon Town, an ever-younger group of Development Squad players started out on the road to Wembley with a mostly impressive 3-2 win.
And it mattered to them. In most academy matches, this would’ve been over after a quarter of an hour, which is how long it took the irrepressible Tino Anjorin to notch a brace. His first owed much to opportunism after Charlie Brown had seen his shot saved, but his second was a stylish close-range finish at the end of a move that would have graced the highest levels of the game. But this is the EFL Trophy; this is the adult world, and the result was far from decided.
Chelsea’s academy coach driver should know the roads of the South West back to front by now. In addition to returning to the County Ground for the third time in four years, the Blues will also complete a hat-trick of trips to Plymouth Argyle’s Home Park this season, while a first appearance at Bristol Rovers’ Memorial Stadium follows sojourns to Exeter City and Yeovil Town in years gone by. If there was disquiet at the prospect of heading back to familiar territory yet again, they didn’t show it, and played some scintillating stuff at times in a first half they dominated and ought to have scored more goals in.
Their problem, though, is set pieces. Vulnerable to them throughout their pre-season fixtures, they were undone again here just two minutes after Anjorin’s second goal, as Arsenal loanee Daniel Ballard made the most of a feeble attempt at an aerial challenge by the considerably smaller Ian Maatsen to reduce the arrears. Every goal conceded provides an opportunity to learn from. Looking disjointed after George McEachran hobbled off, the ensuing reshuffle that saw three players change position rather upset their rhythm, and Swindon were unlucky not to equalise on several occasions late in the half.
For this is a small Development Squad by comparison to those that have gone before it. Borrowing Jamie Cumming from the first team, they didn’t have a single player over the age of 19 in their ranks, and named three second-year scholars on the bench without an appearance at this level among them. Clinton Mola isn’t a centre-half by trade and Marcel Lavinier is more right-back than right winger, but they did their jobs well. Anjorin largely did as he pleased for his 55 minutes on the pitch, but he too is more effective in the attacking third than deeper, where he spent most of the game after McEachran departed.
Town equalised early in the second half as another dead ball unlocked the defence, although credit this time had to go to Adam May for a well-struck shot on the swivel that flashed past Cumming and into the bottom corner. This was the moment for Chelsea to stand up and battle; Jack Wakely came on to add height and authority to the defence and, as Swindon gathered momentum, they battened down the hatches. Having seen off the best efforts of Keshi Anderson and company, they proved their credentials by re-establishing the lead, as Brown collected Gilmour’s pass in altogether too much space and lashed into the roof of the net. 3-2.
Cumming had to be at his best to keep the lively Anderson at bay ten minutes later but, instead of building towards a grandstand finish, the game petered out into a quiet ending that suited Chelsea down to the ground. Maybe the hosts were lacking match fitness less than a week into the new season, or perhaps the extent of their squad rotation had a negative effect on their coherence, but they didn’t look like threatening for a draw that would have led to a penalty shootout nobody wants in a competition few League 1 and 2 teams want any serious part of.
Chelsea, on the other hand, very much do want in. Chance to face teams that plays ‘real’ football are few and far between and the academy staff value their involvement in the competition to the extent that they do not enter age-group cup tournaments arranged by the Premier League any more. For Myers, his debut in charge of the team was a winning one, and the three points on the board give them a strong chance of advancing into the knockout rounds already.
Swindon Town: McCormick, Reid, Ballard, Broadbent, Hunt, Iandolo (Yates), May, Doughty, Diagouraga, Anderson (Woolery), Isgrove (McGlashan)
Subs not Used: Henry, Curran, Graham, Twine
Goals: Ballard 18, May 47
Booked: Hunt, Reid, Diagouraga
Chelsea: Cumming, Lamptey, Guehi ©, Mola, Maatsen, McEachran (Lavinier 23), Gilmour, Uwakwe (Lewis 84), Anjorin (Wakely 55), Castillo, Brown
Subs not Used: Ziger, Lawrence, Broja
Goals: Anjorin 12, 16, Brown ‘60