So here we are again.
Saturday morning will see Chelsea embark on another academy campaign; nine months of ups and downs, rumour, false hope and new dawns.
Fresh off the back of their most successful season ever, the defending FA Youth Cup winners will undoubtedly be keen to defend their silverware, but the league brings its own charms and attractions.
Whilst results come second to player development at this level, it is nice to be able to string positive results together, and Dermot Drummy’s boys turned in an improved campaign in 2009/10 to finish second, behind usual runaway leaders Arsenal in Group A.
And that’s where we start our three-part season preview – with the other nine teams who comprise Chelsea’s Group, who the Blues will face home and away. Over the coming days we’ll also take in the rest of Chelsea’s opponents, and take a look at the Under-18 squad themselves.
Click on the ‘last meeting’ scoreline to view further details of the match on TheChels.info.
Last Season: Champions
Last Meeting: 0-0 (2009-10)
Arsenal are the league powerhouses, finishing on top for each of the last three seasons in Group A, and winning back to back academy titles. They’re a much-revered bunch, who undoubtedly have some fine work going on in their academy, but ahead of the upcoming campaign there may be cause for questions to be raised. They have a potential 16 new first-year scholars, almost an entire squad, and how well they make the step up from schoolboy football will determine their chances of another assault on the championship.
Key Man: Zak Ansah – The son of journeyman midfielder Andy Ansah, England Under-16 striker Zak has been prolific at junior level and can find the back of the net in any fashion required of him. Tall and quick, he will lead the line with great effect.
Last Season: 8th in Group A
Last Meeting: 2-2 (2009-10)
Times are hard for Charlton, who saw a decline across the board when they fell out of the Premier League. Their academy remains productive, if only because the first team has little alternative but to blood their own, but despite their declining league performances, they can still prove a match for an opponent on their day. Many amongst their new first-year intake have played with the Under-18 team already and will look to build upon their experiences.
Key Man: Jordan Cousins – comfortable in either full-back role or in midfield, England Under-16 captain Jordan is an outstanding young prospect who the Addicks will look to fast-track through their own ranks. Set to be a key part of the next England Under-17 generation, he scored a consolation goal in their 2-1 defeat to Chelsea in last season’s FA Youth Cup.
Last Season: 3rd in Group A
Last Meeting: 1-1 (2009-10)
Another club who have suffered off-field financial woes, many of the club’s brightest prospects will be needed for the first team ranks this season. Just as well, then, that they’ve largely been excellent at Under-18 level. They won 3-0 at Cobham last season, but despite scoring twice on that occasion, midfielder James Comley was released at the end of the season. If that speaks volumes for the talent the club is producing, then there’s hope for all Eagles fans. The likes of Wilf Zaha and Ibra Sekkaja will need to be replaced if their youth team are to mount another strong season.
Key Man: Jake Caprice – The strong, technically accomplished midfielder will be going into the second year of his scholarship looking to lead the team, and become more of an influence from the middle of the park. An oft-touted name amongst bigger clubs, he comes with a reputation and will be hoping to back it up.
Last Season: 6th in Group A
Last Meeting: 1-0 (2009-10)
Fulham’s ascension in youth football has been quite remarkable over the last decade, as great investment has brought credible minds to the club and a philosophy which has had fantastic results. Last season’s middling league campaign came second to their FA Youth Cup run, which ended in the Quarter Finals on penalties, but they’re quite an impressive outfit. Led by former player Gary Brazil, they play attractive football, and are rather protective over details regarding their young, taking the step to withdraw from this season’s Reserve league to play fixtures behind closed doors.
Key Man: Richard Peniket – The Welsh junior international forward arrived last summer after a fair bit of talk for a young striker, but found himself behind Danny Hoesen and Marcello Trotta on occasion. He’s a sharp, instinctive goalscorer with all the attributes to put in a prolific season, and will be hoping to make 2010/11 his season.
Last Season: 9th in Group A
Last Meeting: 4-0 (2009-10)
As some of the other teams in Group A have strengthened over the years, Ipswich have struggled to keep up, and last year’s second-bottom showing will have disappointed everyone involved. Still, the likes of Tom Eastman, Reggie Lambe, Jack Ainsley and Billy Clark made the step up into Roy Keane’s first team squad last season, and we’ve not even mentioned New Zealand World Cup hero Tommy Smith and England Under-17 goalscoring champion Connor Wickham, who barely featured in youth football before excelling in the professional ranks. They remain a productive system but new manager Mike Pejic must be hoping for a better season in the coming year.
Key Man: Josh Carson – Josh has been attracting the attention of the Northern Ireland Under-20 ranks, and it comes as no surprise when watching him play. Comfortable with the ball, robust, energetic and dynamic, he brings a complete game whether in attack or deeper in midfield.
Last Season: 4th in Group A
Last Meeting: 2-1 (2009-10)
Norwich’s 4th place was reward for an impressive season in 2009/10, one in which they proved a match for each and every opponent, and if they can find a bit more consistency and defensive stability, they may improve upon last year’s showing. The Canaries have done exceptionally well in goal in previous years, with both Jed Steer and Declan Rudd being regular names in England youth team squads, following Robert Green’s progession into the senior ranks.
Key Man: Patrick Drmola – the pacy hitman scored against Chelsea last season and is a threat either up front or out wide, where he can really cause problems with his athleticism. Has made some waves in pre-season in stepping up a level, and could make that jump permanently if he starts the season well with the youth team.
Last Season: 10th in Group A
Last Meeting: 2-0 (2009-10)
Things aren’t going well down at Portsmouth. Relegated from the Premier League, struggling to even exist, it’s not exactly a surprise that their youth team won just four of 28 matches last season and finished rock bottom themselves. They’ve lost key players themselves, with Len Sowah leaving for Hamburg, Gauthier Mahoto heading back to France, Pablo Navas-Alors to Spain, and Florent Cuvelier to Stoke, leaving them with a younger, more local squad than their previously multi-national set-up. Since the club has no money, many of their younger generation may be called upon for first team duty, and indeed, some have been already.
Key Man: Sam Magri – a bright star in their academy, England Under-16 centre-back Magri brings everything you want from a defender, and combines it with maturity and leadership beyond his years. An impressive performer as a schoolboy, he may not be for long at youth team level.
Last Season: 7th in Group A
Last Meeting: 2-2 (2009-10)
It’s not all doom and gloom on the South coast though, as Southampton are on the way back up from a slide which has taken them to England’s third tier and financial ruin. Whilst the first team enjoys strong financial backing, their academy continues the excellent work carried out by Georges Prost over most of the decade and is still producing very capable talent. A small intake of five first-years should mean that the squad retains a consistency and familiarity with the aim of making their way back to the top of Group A after a season or two shy.
Key Man: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – He may have only turned 17 on the eve of this academy season but Alex has already made his first-team debut and has been attracting great attention for his similarity to another former Saints youngster Theo Walcott. Great pace, great attacking instincts, great potential.
West Ham United
Last Season: 5th in Group A
Last Meeting: 4-3 (2009-10)
An inconsistent season at academy level for the Hammers in 09/10 was perhaps at least tempered by another campaign of positive movement for the club’s youngsters, with the likes of Stanislas, Hines, and Nouble moving into the first team ranks on a regular basis. The club has secured financial stability and are making signings but this is a club with a definite commitment to youth and everyone in their academy – thirteen new first-year scholars included – will be offered that opportunity. Amongst their newcomers are England Under-16 pair Blair Turgott and Matthias Fanimo, and the in-demand Dominic Vose.
Key Man: Robert Hall – Key amongst them all, however, is England Under-17 forward Hall, who has been playing Under-18 football since the age of 14 and is well versed at this level. A dynamic playmaker who scores goals in prolific fashion, he can also play wide and prove a threat in any attacking role. Don’t be surprised if he winds up in the first team squad before Christmas.
In tomorrow’s part two, we’ll look at the rest of Chelsea’s opponents.