Youth & Reserve Season Review 2011-12 – Part Three: The Reserves

Chelsea’s Reserve team failed to retain the national title they win at the end of the 2010/11 season but that was the least of the concerns in a tumultuous campaign which has raised a number of talking points for the future.

Mixed in with all of the usual positives were a succession of lows, including but not limited to poor performances, questionable attitude, player departures and a smattering of controversy.

With close to fifty players turning out for Dermot Drummy’s second string, we rarely saw the same team twice and whilst that’s often an occupational hazard at this level, it unfortunately breeds some unwanted results.

Players become frustrated at a lack of playing time, especially if they’ve not been out on loan. Aziz Deen-Conteh was one such player who told Chelsea TV mid-season that he hadn’t particularly enjoyed the first half of the campaign because he wasn’t involved enough, and when he was it was out of position in an advanced role.

It’s to his credit that he was the recipient of praise from Drummy for how he handled the adversity and once Ryan Bertrand had fully ascended to the first team squad, the young left-back earned a regular spot in his favoured position.

It’s small examples like this which reflect the unpredictable nature of football at this level. The coaching staff are regularly at the behest of those above and below them, with the first team often requiring bodies to make up the numbers during training sessions and the youth team retaining their strongest group for knockout competitions during the second half of the campaign.

Add in a hefty chunk of loanees and you’re left with less than a dozen ‘true’ reserves who train together day in, day out. Others step up or down for matches, but when they’re sometimes two or three weeks apart, minds wander, questions are asked and performances can be stale and uninspiring.

Drummy was critical of many a display this season but his comments after the season finale – a 4-1 reverse to Manchester United – were most revealing and encapsulated the frustrations of a less than ideal nine months:

“They weren’t performing, simple as that. They were giving the ball away, they were sloppy, they were second to every ball, there was more urgency from the opposition. We’re playing Man Utd, and if it needs me to be on the sideline to shout to someone to put tackles in and run then we’ve got a problem.

“The boys moved out of the first team building, they’ve got to pick themselves up, they’ve got to understand that if you want to progress you’ve got to work hard and be prepared to take criticism. I think this year has been a massive learning curve for the reserve team group and where it sits at the club.”

After spending almost all of his coaching career in the youth ranks, 10/11 represented Drummy’s first foray into the world of reserve team football and he was the first to admit it was a big learning experience for him too.

Whilst the group of players he inherited was one he has coached before – many of them from the ages of 14 and 15 – the dynamic changes dramatically with older players who are keen to kick on in their careers and play regular first team football.

To that end we saw Mesca, Rhys Taylor, Carl Magnay, Kaby, and Philipp Prosenik depart the club in search of exactly that, whilst Jacob Mellis left by mutual consent in March after a highly-publicised incident which merely accelerated a process which would likely have happened anyway.

Mellis was one of the better performers throughout the season, enjoying a purple patch around the New Year where he was regularly in the goals and influencing proceedings from the centre of the park. Unfortunately, he found the route to the first team blocked by expensive recent signings (Lucas Piazon was named on the bench twice by Andre Villas-Boas ahead of him) and with no loan move forthcoming, it can’t have been an enjoyable time.

He won’t have been the only one to feel that way either, and it’s doubtless a source of great frustration for everyone at the club. Reserve team football has long been problematic but there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon, and it comes in the form of the Elite Player Performance Plan.

Starting in August, the wasteland of the second string is to be replaced with an Under-21 Development League. It’s more than just a renaming process though, as involvement is mandatory for Premier League sides and it promises more fixtures in a more structured manner.

Training grounds will no longer be allowed to host the majority of fixtures, with stadium environments and ‘hostile’ crowds sought in order to represent the sort of situation the youngsters will find themselves in somewhere down the road.

Matches are scheduled to be played each weekend between Friday and Monday, sometimes at first-team venues before or after the seniors play. This has been designed to allow developmental groups to stay together for longer, encouraging clubs to invoke something of a ‘B Team’ feel with structured weekly training geared towards a match at the weekend.

Whether this all translates into what we hope it will remains to be seen, but progress is being sought. The season may not have gone entirely as planned but there were more than a few bright moments and but for one or two unfortunate developments, it might have gone even better.

Adam Phillip’s third serious injury in as many years in just the second week of the season was desperately sad for all involved, particularly after a fantastic and prolific eight months in 2011 where he looked as fit as he has been in years and was looking forward to going out on loan.

The same can be said for Daniel Pappoe, who returned from a long layoff only to suffer another cruciate ligament injury in February. He, like a number of his teammates, has been remarkably unlucky with injuries and hopefully will be able to enjoy a more positive spell upon his return later this year.

There were plenty of opportunities for the younger generation, with first-year scholar Lewis Baker starting the season in the squad and playing at Stamford Bridge, and playing time for many others in the youth team squad. The youngest of those was Under-15 forward Jeremie Boga, who thoroughly impressed against an experienced Fulham side and is a face we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the near future.

At the heart of the team was a core of half a dozen players who didn’t go out on loan and were as ‘regular’ as you can get at this level. Billy Clifford, Todd Kane, George Saville, Conor Clifford and Nathaniel Chalobah all played in more than half of the total fixtures and each displayed their versatility, lining up in two or three roles to not only further their own experiences but also to aid the balance of the squad for any given week.

With Sam Walker and Rhys Taylor away on loan and Jamal Blackman often occupied with youth team duty (or overseas with the Champions League squad), the coaching staff called upon James Russell to take over goalkeeping duties for most of the second half of the season.

Russell was formerly with the club as a schoolboy and scholar but was released at the age of 19 and has since made his way around the non-leagues whilst developing as a coach. He joined the backroom staff at the academy last summer whilst maintaining his role as first choice at Canvey Island and split his time between the two clubs from January onwards, filling in as emergency reserve team goalkeeper.

He did very well, and it’s to his immense credit that he walked away with a bundle of trophies from Canvey Island’s awards night too.

Patrick Bamford joined from Nottingham Forest mid-season and showed an eye for goal with five in seven appearances, especially impressive considering he played right on the right most of the time.

That was in order to accommodate Romelu Lukaku as the centre-forward, as the Belgian found first-team playing time hard to come by.

In his case, it’s important to forget the £18m price tag and consider the long-term future, particularly as the club were keen to stress upon signing him that he wasn’t read to contribute just yet and that they only really signed him so as to not lose his potential to a rival suitor.

Unfortunately, by featuring against Norwich in Premier League action in August, he was precluded from going on loan (as he had already played for Anderlecht in the 11/12 season) and so was reduced to turning out under Drummy.

Performances were up and down but he did finish as the squad’s leading scorer with seven goals, one more than Milan Lalkovic, and displayed an impressive work ethic and drive to improve.

Men of his size simply do not exist very often in football, and certainly not with his athleticism and football ability. At 6’4” and a shade under 100kg (listed the heaviest outfield footballer in the top flight) he appears cumbersome at times but is built like a heavyweight boxer and has already streamlined his physique with a season at a top level club.

On the face of it, a comparison with Emile Heskey might seem grotesquely unfair, but for those able to recall the veteran exploding onto the scene as a teenager in the mid-90s, it may well seem entirely appropriate – at least from a stylistic point of view.

Blessed with explosive pace, strength and the ability to score off either foot or his head in any situation, the striker nicknamed ‘Bruno’ was a nightmare to defend and enjoyed a big-money move to Liverpool and a long international career.

Heskey, however, gives up two inches and up to ten kilos in weight against Lukaku, and it’s this which is perhaps the most frightening prospect. If, in the next five years, he can put everything together, he could be quite unstoppable. It’s why Chelsea paid such a big sum for him, and it’s why comparisons with the much leaner, much smaller Didier Drogba are unfair and inaccurate.

To finish with, it would be remiss not to comment on Sam Hutchinson. A year after announcing his retirement from the game as a result of a chronic knee injury, he returned to action on a part-time, non-contract basis before earning an 18-month deal last November.

He played every second reserve team game as part of a gentle approach to his full-time return and finished the season by making his full Premier League debut with a start on the last day against Blackburn Rovers.

It’s been great to see him back.

Coming tomorrow…it’s the turn of the Youth Team.