To say Chelsea’s season at Under-18 level has gone well so far would be something of an understatement.
Until last Wednesday they had put together an unbeaten season – including friendly matches – and a series of highly impressive performances against top calibre opposition.
Many of the key contributors have been familiar names to followers of the youth team for a good couple of years by now. Reece Mitchell, Alex Kiwomya, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jordan Houghton and Jeremie Boga have been on the scene for a while as they earned early promotions to the next level whilst still schoolboys (in Boga’s case he still is), meaning they arrived as first-year scholars with experience and as relatively known commodities.
However, a core of players have emerged as reliable and dependable contribitors, players who many many not have been familiar with at the start of the season and who had to patiently bide their time for playing time at Under-18 level, having not been promoted ahead of schedule.
Kevin Wright, Jesse Starkey and Isak Ssewankambo have all been regular features under coach Adi Viveash, whilst Ben Killip and Ambrose Gnahore have played a little less but have impacted the team in their own ways. Of the quintet, only Gnahore had seen time prior to this season as an Under-16, but they all deserve recognition as part of a very talented, very deep squad of players.
Wright is one of only two players (along with Houghton) to play in all twelve league fixtures before Christmas, starting eleven and coming on as a substitute at half time at home to Liverpool in the other game. A left-back short of stature but tall of character, his performances have stood out each and every week and have caught the eye for a combination of maturity in his approach and energy in his effectiveness at both ends of the pitch.
Starkey has played in all three central midfield roles Viveash uses and has flourished along the way. The defensive role has asked perhaps more of him defensively than he has previously been used to, but has added to his game, and he has looked a very tidy, smart and capable footballer. His touch and vision allow him to play quick and intricate link-up play in small spaces, and he has the technicaly proficiency to spread the play towards the attacking third from anywhere in the midfield. Goals from the penalty spot against Crystal Palace and Wolves highlight his set piece skills, although a miss at Manchester City denied him a third of the campaign.
Ssewankambo is the only foreigner in our focus group; a Swedish youth international who arrived as an Under-15 and has been with Chelsea for around two years at this point. By making the move earlier than a traditional import signing, he was able to adjust to both a new country and a new coaching and development structure with less pressure on his footballing career, allowing him to enter full-time scholarly football in a more comfortable environment than many others experience.
One of a number of players in the squad comfortable in either central defensive or in midfield, he has remarkable strength for someone of his age, and after missing out in the first few weeks of the season due to international commitments, has become a mainstay in Viveash’s team. His physical edge and ability to play football along with it – something a lot of young players lack – has been an added bonus to a Blues team which sometimes lacks in that department.
Gnahore has only started four of the twelve league matches but has been used in an impact sub role in five others, and has been exactly that. His direct dribbling and devastating pace off either flank has been utlised very well and as the likes of Kiwomya and Mitchell look to move on to Under-21 football in 2013, more playing time will come his way, and it will be very deserved when it does.
Another who has had to fight and work hard to see time on the pitch is goalkeeper Killip. He entered the 2012-13 season knowing that he would likely play second fiddle to Mitchell Beeney, who played half of last season up as an Under-16, sharing duties with Jamal Blackman. His added experience made him Viveash’s first choice this season, and of course, unlike outfielders, there is less scope for minutes from the bench for backup ‘keepers.
His first league outing resulted in a clean sheet against a good Wolves team and he was given the nod for three particularly tough away games between the end of October and the end of December against Crystal Palace, Wolves again, and Fulham. Given how hard it can be for goalkeepers to come in ‘cold’ – i.e. without a consistent run of games under their belt – he has done really well, particularly in the last few weeks with three consecutive appearances including friendly outings.
The development curve for goalkeepers is a much slower one than for many outfield positions and both he and Beeney have plenty left to do, but at this stage he’s done well enough to the point where it’s safe to say that Viveash has two quality players available to him going into the Elite Group in the new year.
These are just five of twenty-nine players who have turned out for Chelsea in league or youth cup action so far, and certainly each of them have played their part. As we move into the post-Christmas part of the fixture list, we are likely to see a shift in personnel distribution in the junior ranks at Cobham as we do every season. The quality of the second and third tier players in the Under-18 team, as highlighted in this piece, must give the club a great deal of confidence for the second half of the campaign.