It’s been a strange year to say the least, but another fascinating one for Chelsea’s academy, and one not without success.
It started in relatively unassuming fashion, at least given what was to come, with a pair of promising wins for the Development Squad, who were unbeaten in the league at the turn of the year into 2020, and challenging for the PL2 title. The Under-18s were in similarly good nick but failed to win either of their first two games of the new year, losing for the first time, and January’s results would ultimately see them lose out on the title, though for reasons they weren’t to know at the time.
At first team level, Tariq Lamptey built on his senior debut away to Arsenal at the end of 2019 with a few more encouraging substitute appearances under Frank Lampard, only to leave at the end of the transfer window and join Brighton with his Chelsea contract coming to an end. He duly exploded into one of the most exciting youngsters in world football.
February saw the continuation of the Dev Squad’s title challenge and the Under-18s’ FA Youth Cup campaign. The latter saw off Wolves 7-0 and Millwall 1-0 en route to the Semi Finals, which would end up being played eight months later and 150 miles away, but the highlight of the early spring was the emergence of Billy Gilmour from highly-touted youngster to burgeoning superstar. In the space of a week against Merseyside rivals Liverpool and Everton, he put in back-to-back Man of the Match displays and announced his arrival on the big stage.
That win against Everton also saw Tino Anjorin and Armando Broja make their PL debuts and, in the process, Lampard set a new club record for academy debuts given out in a single season.
Then, everything stopped. The world of football was put on a three-month hiatus as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. All academy football was cancelled for the season; the Development Squad were crowned PL2 champions on a points per game basis, having retained their unbeaten run through 18 of 22 matches, but Ed Brand’s youth team missed out on the same rules to Fulham, their January slip-ups proving costly.
Players were told to stay at home and handed individual action plans to see them through the most uncertain of times. Academy staff – also forced to work from home like millions of others – found creative and unconventional ways to foster camaraderie and togetherness, but it wasn’t until July that the youngsters were able to congregate together at the Cobham training ground again. By then, the Premier League was hurtling towards a behind-closed-doors conclusion, but Gilmour suffered a season-ending knee injury, further hampering that impressive coming out party. Reece James, Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham played their part in taking the first team to Champions League qualification, however, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi were in the final stages of their comebacks from achilles tendon injuries.
A six-week off-season saw the 2020-21 season start at all levels in September, when Andy Myers’ Under-23s finally got their hands on the PL2 trophy, with the social distancing practiced and the gloves donned a jarring reminder of the world everyone was now living in.
They stumbled a little in the first two months of the new campaign, finally losing in the league, and winning just four of their first ten matches in all competitions. A terrific recovery before Christmas, however, saw them finish the calendar year atop the table just as they started it, and on course to challenge for honours once again.
Brand’s younger charges found the league going tough again, losing three games before the end of the year in an increasingly competitive Southern section, but did reach another FA Youth Cup Final as they saw off Manchester United at St George’s Park in a belated conclusion to the 19-20 run. A fourth Final against Manchester City in six seasons followed three days later, but it was City who finally got over their Blues hoodoo, winning a pulsating game 3-2 with a late Cole Palmer winner.
Yet, just over three weeks later, Chelsea were back in action for the 20-21 edition, spanking Barnsley 8-1 at the academy’s new Kingsmeadow home. The standard of goal scored on that cold November afternoon could hardly have been higher and, if there was any doubt, they offered a reminder to everyone that they were going to contend once again. A Fourth Round tie against Cambridge United or AFC Fylde awaits in January.
Throughout everything, an increasing representation of academy graduates made their mark in the professional game at Stamford Bridge and beyond; from Lamptey, Eddie Nketiah and Declan Rice in the Premier League to Michael Olise and Dominic Solanke in the Championship, to Jonathan Panzo in France and even Kevin Wright in Sweden, who added his name to the list of Cobham products with international caps when he made his Sierra Leone debut, the influence that Neil Bath, Jim Fraser and a cast of hundreds are having over the modern game is growing by the year. Long may it continue.