Don’t Dream It’s Over – Beyond the Scholarship

Somewhere in the region of a dozen schoolboys have featured for Chelsea’s academy team so far this season.

Many, if not all of those, will go on to secure scholarships with the club going forward, as they continue their footballing development.

For others, however, this time of year will be an uncertain one. Staff at Cobham will be deciding upon who will be offered a two-year academy deal (typically at least) and who will be released to find their own way in football as their schoolboy education finishes.

However, being released at this stage is far from the end. Whilst movement between clubs is often very fluid throughout the early to mid teens, every player works towards the eventual aim of securing a scholarship before the dream of a professional contract.

Not everyone can get there at the same club though. When considering who to keep and who will move on, staff will consider the make-up of the squad for the next season.

Taken into account here will be how many second-year players will continue their education in the Under-18s for a second season (a stage which is planned for many, forced by circumstance for others) and potential overseas signings – a commonplace occurance at a club like Chelsea.

It means places can be at a premium. In recent years the Blues have taken an inclusive approach, often announcing classes of nine or ten each summer. This past year saw eight, but with Daniel Mills Pappoe already firmly entrenched in the side and Tomas Kalas playing abroad, the class was effectively much smaller than usual.

It in turn resulted in a group of players moving on to pastures new. Most clubs are extremely active in finding suitable homes for the 16 year-olds, most of whom will likely be moving away from home and heading out on their own for the first time.

Contacts are used to help here. Chelsea have a good working relationship with Bristol City, where David Lee served as academy manager for a few years, and Harry Rubbins, Daryn Hennessey, Lee Stripp, Lewis Carey and Nathan Livings all earned scholarship deals there over the last five years.

Steve Holland’s arrival from Stoke’s youth setup meant that relationships have also been built up there, and this summer the Potters took on four ex-Blues in Andy Hall, Jordan Agbaje, Andy Musungu and Unpha Koroma.

It’s a familiar tale up and down the country with many clubs left rueing ‘the one that got away’, but it’s never an exact science. It’s incredibly hard to predict a teenager’s potential, let alone attempt to do it in his more formative years.

The nature of the beast also means teams are often powerless to prevent a talent from leaving. One example of this comes in the form of Giles Barnes, now of West Brom.

Now finding his way back into recognition with the Baggies after a couple of injury-riddled years, the midfielder spent time on the books of both Chelsea and Arsenal as a schoolboy, before his family relocated to the midlands, allowing Derby to eventually win his signature.

Even for those who end up winning a much-prized youth deal, a great number will not go on to secure a professional deal and find themselves struggling to find a new home.

Kenny Strickland was cast side by Manchester United after two years and was lucky enough to land on his feet for a third year at Chelsea, but despite impressing here, he has been unable to work things out with a professional club and is currently playing for local side Skelmersdale United.

Jordan Tabor’s story is a similar one. The left-sided player was a regular in the Under-18s for two seasons and had a wand of a left foot, but upon his release a deal at Cheltenham Town was ended abruptly and he is currently out of the game.

Leaving a big club is far from the end of the road though. Countless tales of players coming through elsewhere can be found, even if it’s via the lesser trodden path. Jason Roberts was a Chelsea schoolboy who wound up at Hayes, and worked his way up the football league before becoming a Premier League regular, as well as an international footballer for Grenada.

Some will fall down the football ladder and have to work their way back up from the bottom, but as the saying goes, cream will ultimately rise to the top, and perhaps nobody fits this description more aptly right now than Jermaine Beckford.

He was released by the Blues as a 19 year-old and whilst team-mate Carlton Cole went on to star in the top flight, he was found at Wealdstone as a part-timer.

Seven years later and many Leeds United goals since, Beckford’s moment arrived as he scored a senior goal at Stamford Bridge.

It might have been an infuriatingly late goal for Everton to cost Chelsea two key points, but for him, it must have represented at least a little redemption, and sent a message to every player who has had to move on from a club, particularly the more prestigious ones.

Work hard, and good things will happen.