One of the hardest tasks for any manager is to decide when to assimilate young talent into their first team squad.
Under enough pressure to succeed in the first place, they often face a clamour from supporters to bring through the next generation and ensure that those not performing to first-team standards are kept on their toes.
Some clubs face the need to vindicate investment in their youth development programme, whilst others are forced to rely on producing their own due to financial restrictions.
There is no exact science towards determining when a player is ready to take the next step, but with the right planning and timing, it becomes very possible to bring players into the fold earlier than many would have predicted.
Indeed, there is a very recent example of this being the case. Liverpool currently have very little to play for, other than chasing rather faint hopes of a European qualification place.
Injuries have hit their defensive unit hard, but manager Kenny Dalglish has turned to 18 year-old full-back John Flanagan rather than shuffle his more experienced players into secondary (and at times tertiary) positions.
The teenager has been thrown in at the deep end, with his first two senior appearances coming against the might of Manchester City and Arsenal, but for a number of reasons, he has more than held his own.
A straw poll amongst Liverpool fans would probably reveal that most would have liked that they had seen of him in Under-18 and Reserve team action, but that he was still some way off making an impression in the first team, certainly ahead of others at the club.
Yet his youthful exuberance, coupled with the desire not to let down a team he and his family have supported since birth, has helped bridge the gap to a degree.
His immediate defensive neighbour has been important as well. Jamie Carragher has been where Flanagan is now, and they are effectively kindred spirits, not to mention that whilst he has seen better days, he is a club icon and at his peak was one of the best defenders in the country.
So regardless of whether a player is considered to be ‘ready’ for first-team involvement, a manager can help his young charges out by playing them in the right moments and with the right balance of experienced team mates.
It does help too that Kenny Dalglish’s job security is absolute and he can therefore call upon his recent experience working with the youngsters at the club without needing to worry greatly about falling on his sword due to poor decision-making.
Before you think that this is something of a scouse love-in however, there are plenty of examples of this happening elsewhere, particularly at Manchester United, the most successful youth system in the country over the last two decades.
Sir Alex Ferguson has always shown faith in the club’s next generation, and has been unafraid to ask what other managers would deem to be too much.
Expecting a player to play to the club’s own high standards, regardless of age, puts them amongst equals in the squad, and as long as the player has the sufficient mentality, he will usually succeed.
One’s memory recalls Chelsea hosting the Red Devils in September 2008, with the visitors in a supposed defensive crisis due to the absence of Nemanja Vidic from the centre of their defence.
Ferguson simply turned to 20 year-old Jonny Evans and handed him his United league debut – having spent the previous season on loan at top-flight Sunderland – and the Northern Ireland international put in a man of the match performance.
You can find a great many examples of it happening at Old Trafford throughout the years, whilst a swift glance at Arsenal, Aston Villa, Everton and Middlesbrough show that trust in youth will reap rewards of a varied nature, depending on the club’s hopes and aspirations.
So, how do we bring this discussion around to Chelsea? With what we are told is an ageing squad desperate for an overhaul, and with an academy which was until this week challenging for a second consecutive FA Youth Cup after much investment, the question of when the ‘right time’ is has become prevalent.
With no realistic chance of winning a trophy this season, calls for the likes of Josh McEachran and Ryan Bertrand to see more playing time over the final weeks of the season have been growing.
However, Carlo Ancelotti wisely noted last Friday that now may not be the right time at all. The youth team were, at the time, 90 minutes away from contesting another Cup Final whilst Steve Holland’s second string have the fate of the Reserve league title resting firmly in their own hands.
At what are still tender ages in football, it is undoubtedly more beneficial to allow them to challenge for silverware amongst their own age groups rather than play ‘meaningless’ first team minutes.
Involvement amongst senior professionals, in the right circumstances, allows for a greater acceleration in development than by any other means, but there must be a reason and a winning mentality to play for.
Most players will be sufficiently capable technically even as early as the age of sixteen, but physically and – most importantly – mentally one player will differ from the next, and those who show and play with personality are those who stand the greatest chance of a successful career.
So for the rest of this season, expect Chelsea’s first team squad to remain as it is. But over the summer, whoever ends up calling the shots at Cobham will have some very interesting decisions to make.
Returning from loan will be a number of players for whom the right time may be running out, and if they aren’t to be handed a chance to show their worth at Stamford Bridge, then they will have to move on.
It’s a quandary which managers face every day, and it’s far from an easy one. The greatest trait one can have in these situations is patience, but at the very same time, it can become their worst enemy.