Home comforts have rarely been in evidence at Cobham during the 2010-11 academy season, but in the final league match of the year, Chelsea gave a warming performance to those braving the December weather.
A five-star performance crowned by a Billy Clifford hat-trick saw Dermot Drummy’s boys defeat Norwich 5-1 and pick up just a second home win of the campaign.
With the fixture falling in between two proposed (and then postponed) dates for the FA Youth Cup clash against Sunderland, Drummy’s team showed signs that he has been working with a group for that competition, using a stronger team than often seen this campaign.
Nathaniel Chalobah played at centre back a day short of his sixteenth birthday, with Aziz Deen-Conteh at left back and Clifford in midfield after a midweek trip to Marseille.
Milan Lalkovic led the line flanked by top scorer Todd Kane and Bobby Devyne, with George Saville wearing the number ten shirt just behind them.
In the opening stages everything looked as it has for much of the season, as the hosts were slow out of the blocks and fell back to early Norwich pressure. The Canaries should have taken the lead inside the first ten minutes after a poorly defended set piece, but the finish from close range was high and over the crossbar.
Chelsea held out long enough to get a foothold in the game and after having one sighter from distance, Clifford opened the scoring around the quarter hour mark. Good work from Saville and Lalkovic on the left opened the defence on the right, and Clifford rifled the shot past the goalkeeper to make it 1-0.
It was almost 1-1 immediately, however, as the visitors saw a shot cleared off the line. Had it gone in, it would have been highly contentious as Anton Rodgers was clearly fouled trying to shepherd the ball out of play for a goal kick in the build-up to the chance.
Relieved to have held onto their lead, Chelsea began playing with confidence, and no shortage of desire to test the Norwich goalkeeper.
Saville, Rodgers and Devyne each went close as the first half continued on, Rodgers coming closest of all with a delectable free kick which curled inches wide of the post.
Clifford was also keenly involved in goalmouth action and, after Chalobah’s marauding run had created an opening, was only denied his second of the match by a challenge which did enough to throw the 18 year-old off balance.
He had one or two more efforts before the break, as did Lalkovic, but a one-goal lead at half time was the least the team deserved after their brightest opening spell to a match since the opening day of the season against Manchester United.
Under the watchful eyes of John Terry, Ross Turnbull and a number of reserve team staff, the second half started in the same vein, with Chelsea carving out chances to give them some breathing room.
Clifford earned an early corner after testing the goalkeeper at the end of a flowing move, and from the ensuing delivery Lalkovic was denied by a Norwich goal-line clearance. A further long-distance volley from Clifford cleared the goal by a few metres.
A second goal was a near inevitability and when it arrived, it came courtesy of a Todd Kane special. The first-year is a right-back by trade but many of his attributes lend themselves to a more advanced role, which he has occupied for much of the season.
His team-high sixth goal of the year was a delightfully clipped shot from the edge of the area, enough power to beat the goalkeeper but enough flight and dip to look cheeky. It was a fine goal by a fine developing talent.
With daylight between the two teams, Drummy began to use the remaining time to give opportunities to some of the schoolboys who have played in recent weeks. Alex Davey and Adam Nditi replaced Chalobah and Devyne for the final half an hour.
Jamal Blackman, quiet for much of the game, was forced into a smart save to keep a healthy advantage for his team, but Chelsea’s energy and drive was relentless. Against an opponent who had played extra time in their own Youth Cup tie, they looked fresher and more poised throughout.
Deen-Conteh had a strong shout for a penalty turned down by a referee who had a poor game, whilst Saville had a shot deflected just wide of the post. From that corner, Clifford made it 3-0 with his second, although this one owed much to a heavy deflection which sent it flying past a helplessly flailing Norwich goalkeeper.
Lewis Baker completed the substitutions in relief of Saville, but the lead seemed to bring about a state of complacency amongst the Blues ranks, and they were punished by losing their clean sheet.
Eight players broke forward on a counter attack which was halted, and left Norwich with space in which to break. The remaining defenders were all drawn to the ball carrier, which left Remy Gordon free to run unchallenged. He was duly played in and finished superbly, giving Blackman no chance.
The goal sparked Ricky Martin’s boys into life, and the next ten minutes was a wall of yellow pressure as they went for broke, gambling everything on a late comeback. They had a number of chances, some saved by Blackman, whilst others were spurned.
They had the physical edge on their hosts, sometimes aided by dubious officiating, but on another day they could easily have found a second goal and made the closing minutes uncomfortable for Chelsea. As it was, one was ruled out for offside, and as time ran out on them, so did their legs.
Two further goals were added in the closing stages to give an emphatic look to the scoreline, one not totally undeserved by Chelsea, whilst perhaps being harsh on Norwich.
The fourth goal came from the penalty spot after Nditi was fouled. The Tanzanian had been played through on goal only to see his effort saved, but as he went for the rebound he was up-ended by the goalkeeper, who was booked.
Clifford stroked the spot kick into the bottom corner to complete a well-deserved treble, and even if one was fortunate, nobody will take it away from him.
There was just enough time left for Lalkovic to score another contender for goal of the day, connecting with a raking 50-yard cross field ball before rifling an arrow of a shot into the top corner with his supposedly weaker left foot.
It’s been a tough season for the young Chelsea Under-18 side, with results not always reflecting performances. As they close out 2010 and look forward to a winter break, today was a day where things did go their way, and they should take pride in the display.
Norwich are a good team and are certainly no slouches, but perhaps as a result of tired legs they looked second best all over the pitch. Three-goal hero Clifford displayed just why he has seen involvement with the first team squad, leading a strong display by the entire team in all phases of play.
Here’s to more of the same in 2011.
Team: Blackman, Sampayo (c), Nkumu, Chalobah (Davey 60), Deen-Conteh, Rodgers, Clifford, Saville (Baker 70), Devyne (Nditi 60), Kane, Lalkovic
Goals: Clifford 15, 59, 86 pen, Kane 52, Lalkovic 90