The Chelsea Football Club Academy.
Lauded as often as it is criticised and subject to great investment for over half a decade, it attracts much attention and sparks much debate amongst Blues fans, neutrals and pundits alike.
At the end of a transfer window which has seen many of the club’s young generation fly the nest to take the next step in their careers, the question of when Chelsea will regularly produce first-team ready players of their own is seemingly as prevalent as ever.
Yet is it a valid question to ask? Indeed, is it more valid to ask what the purpose of an academy at one of the world’s richest clubs is?
To truly answer that, we need to go back to 2003, when Roman Abramovich bought the club. Forgive me if some of the following is more narrative than analysis (and doesn’t quite solely focus on Chelsea), but we need to look back to understand the present and predict the future.
Chelsea had been relatively successful with their youth setup, as the likes of Jody Morris, Jon Harley, Michael Duberry and most notably John Terry worked their way into the senior fold.
Not that there was much choice in the matter though. The club’s financial position was precarious at best, and without the capacity to strengthen the playing squad from outside, Gianluca Vialli and then Claudio Ranieri had to look at their own.
Carlton Cole, Robert Huth and Mikael Forssell all stepped up to varying degrees of success and whilst there was still some money spent, it was on a scale nowhere near that seen once Abramovich arrived at the club.
Ranieri was able to rebuild the playing squad part by part, and now instead of turning to the reserve team for fresh blood, we now had Glen Johnson, Joe Cole, Wayne Bridge and Scott Parker in their teens or early 20s.
We had Petr Cech and Arjen Robben to arrive a year later, but just as importantly, the club had adopted a new mentality: win now.
In order to keep up with the exceptional level of expectation now running through the club, the academy needed to adapt accordingly. An extraordinary level of investment – in England at least – was promised as part of the plans for the new Cobham training ground, and accordingly, a suitable name was needed to spearhead the new direction.
Enter Frank Arnesen. A much-maligned figure in recent Chelsea lore, he will undoubtedly leave a legacy on the club’s short to medium term future, having created and installed much of the club’s methodology in the 9-18 age groups.
The ability to spend money in order to strengthen the Under-18 and Reserve teams may have caught the headlines (and usually for the wrong reasons as was the case with Messrs Woods, Taiwo and Kakuta), but there was change on a great level from the bottom up.
Chelsea were now able to hire coaches on a full-time basis. They were able to hire more of them, and increase the quality of person they had coaching their young footballers.
Extra allowances could be made for boys taken out of school in order to increase access time. Academy Manager Neil Bath has built an excellent rapport with local schools in order to get his players onto the training field for two full days a week, and has the infrastructure in place at the club now to make sure that education remains catered for.
Next summer, the club will hand out between eight and a dozen first year scholarships, as they do every year, but there will be a difference in 2012.
They will represent the first age group which has gone through from Under-9 level to receive scholarships entirely under the Arnesen regime.
Some of this year’s class, and a clutch of players in previous years, will have arrived after 2005 and therefore only worked in the current structure, but for the boys who joined the club shortly after Arnesen and has had six full years, we may now have a gauge of just how much has changed.
There has been a marked decrease in the number of players acquired from outside of the club in the last 24 months, with the vast majority of the players in the academy being locally sourced and England eligible.
(To an extent, this is also due in some part to a shift in transfer policy at the club, as witnessed in the signings of Courtois, Dávila and Romeu this past summer)
Seven Chelsea players played for England at Under-16 level last season, a number matched by no other club. Indeed, no club was able to match Chelsea’s total England representation last season across all levels.
Five players – John Terry, Ryan Bertrand, Michael Mancienne, Nathaniel Chalobah and Jordan Houghton – captained the Three Lions across various age groups, and all bar Bertrand came through the club’s own ranks from no later than the age of fourteen.
In the younger junior age groups, the club are enjoying an unprecedented level of domestic and international success. Earlier this month the Under-15 team finished fourth at the Manchester United Premier Cup having been the last European team standing.
A year prior and the same age group became the first team in thirty years to win the prestigious Northern Ireland Milk Cup without conceding a single goal.
Throughout last season age groups from 12 to 15 paraded various silverware around Stamford Bridge at first team matches, whilst the Under-18s fell just shy of retaining their 2009 FA Youth Cup crown.
So, with the club amongst the very best at schoolboy level(s), surely the next step is to expect a flood of players knocking on Andre Villas-Boas’ first team door, right?
Unfortunately, things aren’t always that simple.
Every manager who has taken the hot seat at Stamford Bridge since the departure of Jose Mourinho has talked a good game about using younger players from the club’s academy, but have been found wanting when backing their words up with actions.
Much of this can be attributed to the short-term nature of their work; winning was expected yesterday, not tomorrow. Avram Grant and Guus Hiddink were little more than firefighters, and whilst Luiz Felipe Scolari and Carlo Ancelotti teased with cameos for Miroslav Stoch and Josh McEachran respectively, the full commitment was lacking.
For a greater understanding, we go back to Mourinho. The Portuguese indicated that, in his opinion, there was not sufficient quality in the club’s youth ranks for him to commit to using them in regular league action.
He still found opportunity to use players – perhaps more than any of those who have followed – but it’s pretty fair to say he wasn’t particularly endeared by what he saw.
Four years on from his departure, the club is in year seven of a ten year plan and whilst public statements of a “first team squad player by 2010” may have been slightly premature, signs of traction are more than evident throughout the junior age groups.
Coaching is geared around work almost exclusively with a football involved, with emphasis on technique and skill. The club is on course to meet Grade One classification under the new Elite Player Performance Plan proposals which are expected to come into effect in 2012, a status only two other clubs are currently believed to have achieved.
Influential figures in the world of youth development have been effusive in their praise of the work being done at Cobham, from everyone’s favourite FA mouthpiece Sir Trevor Brooking to Premier League Director of Youth Ged Roddy, but it still doesn’t solve the problem of bridging the gap from youth football to the professional game.
Unfortunately, it’s not a problem Chelsea can address themselves. Whilst it’s undeniably hard for a player to attain a sufficient level of ability as a teenager to be of use to the first team, the footballing landscape in England is far from conducive to helping them achieve their aspirations.
Qualified coaches are still in desperately low numbers compared to continental counterparts, and the hours spent with the club’s coaches are still nowhere close to ideal.
A typical schoolboy who enjoys day release once or twice a week alongside two evenings of training will see somewhere between six and ten hours of access a week.
At clubs like Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Ajax –all bastions of youth development – players live, school and train on one premises. The clubs operate their own boarding schools and are able to offer their players hundreds, if not thousands more hours on the football pitch.
The morality of such practices can be debated long into the night, but it’s not a common approach on these shores. Watford have been somewhat pioneering in the work they’ve done at their Harefield academy and have managed to triple the hours their players get with their coaching staff.
The EPPP proposals, in theory, would make ‘La Masia’ style schools commonplace for clubs, but initial interest appeared low, with less than half a dozen teams indicating their desire to open such schools.
That is just one major problem. The chasm which exists between the ages of 18 and 21 is another, and one which shows little sign of being addressed.
Once a player has graduated from youth team football, he faces something of a crossroads. Reserve team football is the logical step, but it’s in an unfortunate state and matches rarely resemble anything more than a vigorous training session.
Alternatively, he can go out on loan, but the percentage of 18 year-olds who are capable of handling that upheaval is minimal, and if he’s not able to make a first team impact (which is unlikely), he runs the risk of stagnation.
And so we consider the alternatives, and look at how the more successful nations go about things and what we can learn from them.
Whilst Spain are the current team du jour as they hoover up titles at all age levels, the most intriguing country to follow with regards youth opportunity is Germany.
As you may be aware, a decade or so ago, there was a concerted effort to revitalise the game at junior level in Germany after their worst international finals showing at Euro 2000.
Now, whilst the Nationalmannschaft have yet to add to their collection of honours, they possess one of the youngest, most exciting groups of players in world football, and have a real quality of depth to boot.
This comes as a result of clubs showing real trust in their next generation. Young German footballers develop safe in the knowledge that they are likely to be given an opportunity to play, and if they’re good enough they’ll stay in the team.
In those ten years, representation amongst German-eligible footballers has increased by almost ten percent. Witness cases such as that of Ron-Robert Zieler.
Formerly on Manchester United’s books, the goalkeeper never made it further than a loan at Northampton Town in England, but a year later is now starting every week for Hannover, who will play in the Europa League.
No wonder Mancienne, Tore, Sala et al were keen to join Arnesen at Hamburg.
Yet was there an element of fortunate circumstance to all of this? In 2002, the collapse of the Kirch media empire saw the German league’s television deal go up in smoke and left many clubs in financial peril.
It forced clubs to cut wage bills and limit expenditure, which meant little alternative but to blood fresh talent of their own.
Will it take a massive financial crash in England for the tide to really turn? It would take a similarly catastrophic television rights crash to make such an outcome even remotely likely given the total combined debt of Premier League clubs.
And it’s here where we reach perhaps the most important discussion point of all. We can pontificate for hours and hours on end about the merits of a youth academy. We can encourage reform at ‘grass roots level’ and invite greater investment into coaching and knowledge so that our youngsters have access to better quality more of the time.
But if the first team is a closed shop, it’s all for nothing. There will always be your Aston Villas, your Middlesbroughs, and to a slightly lesser extent your Evertons. Short of being bought by an obscenely rich man or woman, these clubs will rely on the quality of their academies to provide the foundation of their playing squads.
Everyone else may talk a good game, but in a summer where spending has once again soared higher in England than anywhere else in the world, their (lack of) actions speak volumes.
We do have one exception, of course, and that’s Manchester United. The best academy in England bar none may never produce another generation of Scholes’, Nevilles and Beckhams, but they are prepared to balance expensive signings with home-grown players and remain well ahead of the game here.
A team with an average age of barely 23 has so far this season run roughshod over opponents and in Evans, Welbeck and Cleverley has seen three players who have come through at Carrington impress.
However, in Sir Alex Ferguson they have a manager who has complete job security and therefore someone who can take a few risks without his job coming under threat.
Witness the same at Liverpool last season when then-caretaker boss Kenny Dalglish used a relatively pressure-free environment to see what he had in Flanagan, Robinson and Spearing.
Unless an opportunity exists for players to play more than just a fleeting few minutes at the top levels, we remain in a position where we cannot truly evaluate the success of an academy system.
Consequently, we’re also unable to ascertain the point of running one at all.