The FA Youth Cup has been kind to Chelsea in the past few years as the Blues have won the competition once in addition to (ultimately unsuccessful) runs to both the final and semi-final.
The 2011-12 campaign gets underway this week with a ‘home’ tie against Doncaster Rovers, to be played at Staines Town’s Wheatsheaf Park ground.
It’s a somewhat unusual choice of venue, but FA regulations demand that matches are hosted by a stadium with the capacity to allow paying supporters, which rules out training grounds (except in the case of emergency, as was the case last season away to Sunderland).
With Chelsea no longer operating a reserve team at either Aldershot or Brentford, Stamford Bridge has been the typical de facto choice, but with ties needing to be played before the end of the week and Manchester City heading to SW6 on Monday evening, alternative arrangements have had to be made.
So the long road to glory starts in unfamiliar territory but it will at least feature some familiar faces. Whilst elimination to Manchester United last April meant the likes of Milan Lalkovic, Josh McEachran, Billy Clifford and Tomas Kalas came to an end of their eligibility, a clutch of others will be looking to make good of their own last shots at youth cup success.
Jamal Blackman, Todd Kane and Daniel Pappoe all return for another crack in their final years of eligibility, whilst Amin Affane will be keen to play a bigger part than he did last season.
Additionally, Nathaniel Chalobah gets a second run after such an impressive schoolboy campaign last term, whilst Lucas Piazon’s early arrival from Sao Paulo offers something of a wildcard, with the Brazilian being young enough to feature.
On paper, at least, the Blues appear stronger than perhaps they did at this stage last season. The cup-winning side of 2009-10 was, from a very early stage, an obvious contender, with exceptional attacking talent, whilst last year’s class were a more robust defensive outfit with an opportunistic streak in front of goal.
There looks to be a better balance to this year’s team, and Adrian Viveash will have a fairly large group of players to work with in his first year in charge of the youth team.
Perhaps most impressively of all is the number of schoolboys set to be involved; not merely as bit-part players but key contributors.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Alex Kiwomya and Islam Feruz have been mainstays of the team in Premier Academy League action so far, accounting for well over half of the team’s goals, and will each be key to Chelsea’s chances of success.
Should goalkeeper Blackman – arguably the team’s most important player – be unavailable for whatever reason, young Mitchell Beeney will deputise, whilst there may even be involvement for Bertrand Traore, who is yet to make his Under-18 bow despite being a full Burkina Faso international.
The spine of the team promises much, with Blackman lining up behind a presumptive central defensive pairing of Pappoe and Chalobah. The former is likely to retain the captaincy from last term, but is currently injured, meaning the latter may take the armband.
Chalobah scored four times during last season’s run to the last four; rotating between defense and midfield, and may do so again this time with both Alex Davey and Nathan Aké enjoying good form in league football, although Davey picked up a potentially serious injury on Saturday.
Viveash’s team has become more settled of late and both Adam Nditi and Ali Gordon have done well at full-back. Nditi will retain his place but Gordon is expected to make way for Todd Kane, who offers an excellent attacking threat and that little bit more experience.
An all-English trio of midfielders in John Swift, Lewis Baker and the aforementioned Loftus-Cheek have struck up quite the understanding in the past month or two and have been central to the Under-18s’ fine recent form. Each should be expecting a starting berth and despite their relative inexperience, they are certainly capable of holding their own against older opponents.
Ahead of them, Swedish technician Affane has come on very well in his second year at the club and should play on the left with license to create from narrower inside positions. His set piece delivery will also be important for a team which can offer a threat in the air.
Piazon may start on the right, as he has done for Dermot Drummy’s reserve team, leaving schoolboys Feruz and Kiwomya to battle it out for the number nine shirt.
Feruz holds a slender advantage at the moment, with Kiwomya’s pace and movement lending themselves perfectly towards a super-sub role; perhaps in much the same way as Adam Phillip did some years ago under Paul Clement.
Offering depth and no shortage of ability in reserve are Archange Nkumu, Anjur Osmanovic, Tom Howard, Sam Bangura, and Ismail Seremba, whilst the injured trio of Danny Stenning, Walter Figueira and Nortei Nortey may make an impression in later rounds.
It will be a young campaign led by two relatively young coaches, as 46 year-old Viveash will be assisted by Joe Edwards, a 25 year-old former academy scholar who now coaches the very talented Under-16 team.
The advantage throughout the competition will typically go to those who have the more talented and capable second-year players, and whilst Chelsea may lack those in terms of numbers, those they do have are exceptionally talented and can take this team a long way in 11-12.