Under-18s Battle Onwards Despite Injuries

Forgive the rather obtuse title to this article, for I was unable to come up with something more succinct.

If one takes a cursory glance at the Group A standings in the Premier Academy League, Chelsea’s name will be found towards the bottom of the table. Certainly, this is unfamiliar territory for a Blues academy who had challenged at the other end in recent years.

However, theirs has thus far been a season riddled with squad mayhem, and no fewer than 27 outfielders having featured already this season. That’s just two short of last season’s entire tally, and we’ve not yet hit upon the time of year where next season’s scholars are introduced properly.

Already working with a smaller squad than last season, manager Dermot Drummy has been without James Ashton since last season, as the gifted midfielder had suffered with long-term injury problems which will hopefully subside in 2011.

In the four months to date of the 2010-11 campaign, the team has also lost Amin Affane, Philipp Prosenik, Mesca, Danny Stenning and Reece Loudon to mid to long-term problems, whilst reserve fringe players Rohan Ince and Daniel Pappoe have also been struck down.

The loss of Austrian forward Prosenik has undoubtedly hit the Blues the hardest. After suffering through three seperate problems in his first year in England, he appeared to be fighting fit and in form over the summer and early autumn, scoring three goals in five appearances.

Damage to his knee sustained away to Spurs has unfortunately left the youth team with something of a problem. With Marko Mitrovic both graduating from the age group and injured anyway, alternatives to lead the line have been in short supply.

Drummy’s side typically operates in a 4-3-3 shape, the academy’s chosen formation, and without a focal point like Prosenik leading the line, the team have struggled to find penetration in the attacking third.

Bobby Devyne has been thrust into the number nine role, but as a shorter, quicker forward, he is not best suited to the job. Schoolboy Ismail Seremba has had modest success with two goals in four outings, but he too is more of a wide player.

Slovakian winger Milan Lalkovic is far more comfortable than anyone else in moving into a more central role but he too has suffered his own medical problems, and consequently the club has simply had to make do.

Players have been shuffled about the team trying to plug holes wherever possible, and one very successful beneficiary has been Todd Kane.

The first-year is a right-back by trade but has increasingly been used in midfield, and has rewarded the faith placed in him by scoring a team-leading six goals so far this season.

Prosenik’s absence has manifested itself in the Under-18s scoring just 21 goals in 13 matches though, with nine of those coming in the last two matches, featuring greater experience in the likes of Lalkovic, Billy Clifford and Aziz Deen-Conteh.

They haven’t always been available though, meaning that eleven schoolboys have already made the step up ahead of time, a number that academy staff will likely be equally pleased and concerned by.

Certainly, the boys will not have been promoted unless deemed ready, and some, such as Nathaniel Chalobah, have made appearances before this season, but there is a danger that by advancing them too early, they may rush and therefore hinder their development.

On the other hand, the additional experience before signing a scholarship could be seen as invaluable, as the likes of highly-rated midfielders John Swift and Lewis Baker cover for the absences of expensive overseas imports Mesca and Affane.

By including schoolboys in the Under-18 team – whether through choice or necessity – a domino effect is created. Spaces become available in the Under-16 team, allowing some of the eminently successful Under-15 team to progress earlier.

That goes down through the age groups and ultimately challenges players to play beyond their current level of ability and show that they’re capable of holding their own against bigger, older boys.

This course of action was deployed with Josh McEachran and Jeffrey Bruma to name but two, with both regular names on the academy team sheet as 15 year-olds.

Whether Messrs Baker, Swift, Seremba and others follow suit won’t be known for a few years at the very least, but for one reason or another, they’re getting their chance.

Meanwhile, it remains important to look beyond statistics, results, and league tables.

Drummy has made it quite clear every week that development and performance comes first, with everything else a nice bonus. To that end, there should be a sense of positivity around the first half of this season.

Results haven’t been rewarding, but it’s certainly through no lack of effort, commitment, or ability. Closing out the calendar year with two emphatic wins will hopefully remind people – players included – that this is a talented academy and they are going about their work in a forward-thinking fashion.

Injuries are hard to deal with at any level, but with any luck, we’ll look back on this spell as a blessing in disguise some time down the road.

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