A new manager, a dozen new scholars, a change of Sporting Director at the top, but things remain the same as far as the Chelsea youth team are concerned.
A second FA Youth Cup title in three years was the undoubted headline of another campaign in which the league slate was often handed over to the younger players – typically including more than a sprinkling of schoolboys – and the cup took over as the main priority.
By any standard, Chelsea remain at the forefront of youth development in England, regardless of opportunities to progress into the first team squad. That’s another area for (a very large) debate, but when put up against any other club within the development sphere, they certainly hold their own.
Dermot Drummy’s promotion to the reserve team manager’s role meant a vacancy was created at Under-18 level, but the club have had an internal promotion structure in place for a number of years and like Drummy and Paul Clement before him, Adi Viveash made the step up from Under-16 level and continued coaching a group of players he had already been with for the best part of two seasons.
Such familiarity cannot be underestimated in its plus points. Everyone is already exceptionally familiar with each other and time ordinarily spent on learning and acclimatising can instead be spent on developing and progressing, increasing productivity all round.
Viveash has proved himself to be an excellent selection for the post, retaining a headstrong approach throughout an eventful campaign whilst keeping his players focused on doing the simple things right. Once that’s in place, he believes, good things will happen, as more often than not Chelsea have the most capable players on the pitch.
He claimed the Youth Cup triumph to be the proudest moment of a long career as a player and a coach, and he has clearly gotten the best out of a talented group this season. It was far from an easy run to glory though, as those who have followed it closely will be able to attest to.
They fell behind within two minutes of their first tie against Doncaster and relied on a late Lucas Piazon goal to give them safe passage into Round Four, where they would triumph on penalties away to Norwich City after a tense goalless draw.
Spot kicks would also decide a Fifth Round tie at home to West Ham after a heart-stopping 3-3 tie featuring a 93rd minute equaliser from captain Nathaniel Chalobah, restoring parity less than a minute after Elliott Lee appeared to have won the day for the visitors.
If their first three ties had been dramatic, the last eight clash at Nottingham Forest was downright ridiculous. Three goals behind at half time and staring elimination in the face, the Blues turned the game on its head with a brace from Islam Feruz, a deflected strike by Piazon, and a late winner from Alex Kiwomya to re-define ‘never say die’.
With each unlikely result, confidence within the camp was soaring and the youngsters saved their best football for the most important fixtures. They were excellent value for their 2-1 win at Old Trafford against Manchester United in the first leg of the Semi Final and although the Reds produced some good stuff in return at Stamford Bridge, another goal from Piazon earned a deserved draw and a place in the Final.
Brazilian Piazon had been the team’s wildcard throughout; arriving from Sao Paulo in November eligible to feature in the competition. He grew in impact throughout the run and ultimately won the club’s Young Player of the Year Award but in the end against Blackburn, it was others who would star en route to winning the competition.
A 4-0 rout of Rovers at the Bridge courtesy of two more Feruz goals added onto effort by Chalobah and by Lewis Baker put things beyond doubt, making the second leg at Ewood Park little more than (literal, given the weather) damp squib.
Not that it would affect the celebrations though, as Chalobah followed in Conor Clifford’s recent footsteps and lifted the coveted trophy. The academy was fully represented in rainy Lancashire, and it was thoroughly appropriate that they were, as whilst the headline-grabbers were featuring in high-profile matches, the rest were taking part in the league campaign, furthering their own developing and staking a claim for spots themselves.
Group A remains perhaps the most competitive Academy League Group and Chelsea’s seventh place finish belies their overall quality, especially with more wins than defeats and a positive goal difference.
Well over a dozen schoolboys were given ample playing time – including three highly-rated Under-15s – and only a final day defeat to Ipswich Town ended a three-month unbeaten run in all competitions.
It represented a tangible improvement over the course of the season as the Blues started with just one win from their first eight games. Defensive frailties were the order of the day as they proved themselves more than able at the other end, notching three at Newcastle, two away to Watford, Coventry and Southampton and another treble at home to Ipswich without a single win.
Chief amongst their goal-getters in the early weeks of the campaign were a pair of schoolboys in Alex Kiwomya and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. The former finished with eight goals as the team’s second top scorer, and they all came from the bench in a super-sub role.
Loftus-Cheek, meanwhile, sparkled in late 2011 with a run of goals at club level and a standout show for England’s Under-16s on Sky Sports in the Victory Shield, where he was the winning captain and star attraction.
Injuries would curtail his involvement from Christmas onwards but results began to turn in Chelsea’s favour. Six wins on the spin took the Blues into the winter break on the crest of a wave, helped in part to the emergence of another schoolboy in Feruz.
His protracted arrival from Celtic was agreed in September, when he turned 16, but he was unable to feature until a couple of months later. With a recognised experienced forward in place (after Walter Figueira suffered a long-term injury) and Piazon introduced into the fold, the team began to click and show some of their potential.
Figueira returned in early 2012, as did fellow long-term casualties Danny Stenning, Nortei Nortey, Samuel Bangura and James Ashton, but unfortunately Daniel Pappoe was only able to return for three games before damaging knee ligaments to signal another long-term layoff.
Elsewhere, the likes of Tom Howard, Anjur Osmanovic, Ali Gordon and Ismail Seremba produced the goods on a consistent basis in the league whilst Jamal Blackman, Alex Davey, Nathan Aké (scholar of the year), John Swift and others upped their game on the bigger stage.
The depth in quality continued to exhibit itself in the form of incoming 2012 scholars Jordan Houghton, Mitchell Beeney, Reece Mitchell and Dion Conroy amongst others, and we can look forward to seeing more from them next season.
It promises to be much like the year just gone, in which case; you wouldn’t want to miss it.
Coming tomorrow…we take a look at the international scene.