Failing On The Loan Front?

Those of you who have kept a keen interest in Chelsea’s loan activity this season will have noted that not everything has gone smoothly.

Whilst the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Tomas Kalas and Jeffrey Bruma have all featured regularly for their temporary clubs and are generally having good seasons, at the other end of the scale Gael Kakuta, Patrick van Aanholt and Matej Delac have struggled for playing time and have seen their development stunted.

Unfortunately, it’s nothing new and indeed is something of a familiar story for followers of Blues youngsters over the years. It raises many questions and discussion points; chief amongst which is whether the club has been detrimental not only to the careers of certain players, but also to themselves.

To begin with, it’s important to consider Chelsea’s place in the academy football world, and particularly pre and post 2005. Before that point, the Blues had a relatively productive academy but it was deemed only fit for producing players of a limited level.

The resulting upheaval, investment and desire to produce players of a markedly improved standard naturally drew attention from the wider footballing audience, with observers keen to see whether Chelsea would be able to produce their own talent instead of merely hoovering up everybody else’s.

It’s here where a key part of answering the above question lies. Deservedly or not, the club has attracted a negative reputation at junior level, and it has knock-on effects on the loan front when it comes to finding teams and managers who trust that Chelsea’s young footballers are capable.

Whilst the likes of Kakuta, van Aanholt and Delac toil to find regular action, their contemporaries are having little such problems. Liverpool have struck a working relationship with Blackpool and have seen the likes of Jonjo Shelvey thrive so far this season, whilst Arsenal have a similar deal with Stevenage.

Last season, Hull took a host of Manchester United players on loan, some of which turned into permanent deals. That affiliation came about largely because of Warren Joyce’s connections at both clubs, but little like this is in place at Chelsea despite the array of contacts Frank Arnesen, Steve Holland, Adie Viveash and Dermot Drummy almost certainly held between them.

Instead, they are forced into scrabbling around trying to find a suitable location, and often fail. Combine less than suitable locales with managers who struggle to trust the players to play, and you’ve got a less than ideal situation developing.

Liverpool aside (at least for most of the last decade, and until Kenny Dalglish took charge), these are clubs who have shown time and again that they are prepared to develop their own talent, and hold a particular standing in the game because of it.

Just as regular consumers are more comfortable buying from reputable outlets, managers and clubs will be happier taking a youngster on loan from a proven system.

When you look into a few deals from recent years and the relative career paths taken since, the picture remains a bleak one.

For starters, take Ryan Bertrand. Amongst his seven career spells away from Stamford Bridge, he spent half a season at Norwich City.

Aged only 18, he shared the left flank with Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs; a winger who first embarked on the road to becoming a full-back whilst at Carrow Road.

The two are aged just 52 days apart and for the majority of the 2007-08 campaign Bertrand was considered to be the better of the two. A regular at England youth level, he continued with the Canaries into 08-09.

Whilst Bertrand plied his trade in League One, however, Gibbs was recalled to Arsenal, afforded a first-team opportunity and is now a full England international. As with many aspects of youth development, opportunity is crucial.

This is a fact Rhys Taylor will also know all too well. The Welsh stopper is 11 days older than Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny and regularly faced him at schoolboy, academy and reserve team levels before the pair embarked upon professional careers.

Taylor’s first foray into the world of the loanee was a month at QPR where he was exclusively backup to Radek Cerny. Later the same season, Szczesny found a starting role at Brentford, where he quickly made a name for himself.

Last season the Pole became undisputed first choice whilst Taylor dropped down to England’s fourth tier at Crewe Alexandra.

He has this week joined Rotherham, who ironically are now managed by Andy Scott, the man who gave Szczesny his head in the adult game. Arguments can always be made that one boy is more talented than another, but when one is afforded the opportunity and the other isn’t, it’s rarely a convincing one.

Of course, it helped Szczesny no end that Arsenal had struggled to find a replacement for Jens Lehmann, whilst Taylor’s road to the top was heavily impacted by Petr Cech, but even in situations where Chelsea had a clear opening and need for youngsters to step up, the door has been firmly closed.

Scott Sinclair is a mere nine days younger than Theo Walcott, but whilst the latter was kept around at Arsenal, the former Bristol Rovers player was farmed out on half a dozen loans all around the country.

He invariably impressed in the football league but when he finally secured a Premier League move, he found himself sat on Wigan Athletic’s bench for huge chunks of the 2009-10 season.

It took a permanent move to Swansea for the now England Under-21 international to begin to show his talents off to the world, and as Chelsea continue to operate without a convincing winger, they may wonder what they could have had if they followed a different path than the one they did with Sinclair.

For Gael Kakuta, see Tom Cleverley. For Franco Di Santo, see Danny Welbeck. Similar cases exist almost everywhere you look and in the rare(ish) instances that a Chelsea youngster played a full season at a notable level, they weren’t given the opportunity to take their game to the next level upon their return.

Perhaps it’s revealing that the one player to break the mould has been Daniel Sturridge. A wildly successful five months at Bolton led to an England debut and nine goals before Christmas in Chelsea Blue.

However, Sturridge is not a Chelsea product, but a Manchester City one. Whilst they too are amongst the nouveau riche, they have a strong standing in the game as developers of young talent and have a prolific recent record.

Maybe it is simply a case of Chelsea’s younger players not being as good as we think they are. That’s a hard argument to prove though, because they’re simply rarely afforded the chance to show what they have.

At every comparable youth level however, they’ve at least looked as good as their ‘rivals’ at other clubs, if only head to head on the same pitch in some cases. Is there better way to judge talent of the same age before they come to greater attention?

Undoubtedly, they could be helped out by their employers far more than they are, with more loans like Sturridge’s at Bolton and less like Kakuta’s and the torrid time Croatian goalkeeper Delac has had since signing (zero competitive league appearances in a year and a half).

As we embark upon another transfer window, one in which arguably the best Chelsea product of a generation in Josh McEachran is likely to be sent away for experience, an improvement in the selection process would be a fine starting point. However, showing that they’re willing to give opportunities, as usual, the most important thing.

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