Academy Season Preview: Part One – The Competitions

A regular criticism of youth football in England is that teams simply don’t play enough games in order to develop sufficiently. In 2013-14, Chelsea will not be able to call upon that excuse as their Under-21s and Under-19s will take part in a combined six domestic and European competitions; an almost unprecedented tally in modern times.

Dermot Drummy will lead his boys in the Barclays Under-21 League as well as the NextGen Series, which for the coming year bumps its age eligibility to Under-20 (with room for over-age Under-21s), and they also have the new national Under-21 Cup on their fixture list. Adi Viveash’s younger charges, meanwhile, have the Premier Academy League as their bread and butter but will also be in continental competition in the form of the new UEFA Youth League, whilst also trying to maintain their excellent recent record in the FA Youth Cup.

Each of the competitions have their own nuances and intricacies in terms of eligibility and scheduling, so let’s take a closer look at them in their own right:

Barclays Under-21 Premier League
Another set of changes have being swept through by the Premier League, meaning a third restructure in four years. The latest changes aren’t perfect, but all 22 Category One teams have been thrown into the same single league, with teams playing each other once either home or away. Teams are paired so that if Chelsea play Manchester United away, they’ll face Manchester City at home, and so on. It provides a 21-game fixture list which then moves into a post-season playoff format involving the top four teams. They will go head-to-head to determine the overall champion.

Over-age player rules remain the same as last time around; a maximum of three players over the age of 21, plus one additional goalkeeper, may be named in a matchday squad. Clubs have insisted on retaining a facility to bring injured players back to match fitness with meaningful minutes, although questions must be asked as to why private friendly outings cannot be arranged instead in order to preserve the integrity of developmental football.

The powers that be have, at least, attempted to curb a disturbing trend of playing Under-21 fixtures behind closed doors at club training grounds. A maximum of three are now permitted, which takes weather-enforced changes into account, whilst the minimum number of games expected to be hosted at first-team stadia has been bumped from two to three. Chelsea will share their schedule around Stamford Bridge, Cobham, Brentford’s Griffin Park and Aldershot’s Recreation Ground, the latter of which will host the opening game of the season against Tottenham Hotspur on August 9th.

Under-21 Cup
Little is known about the Premier League’s new domestic cup initiative for Under-21 teams, with only Chelsea appearing to have publicly commented on it so far. The club has listed provisional round dates for the Last 32 and beyond, indicating that it will be open to more than just the 22 elite tier clubs.

That in itself is an interesting and exciting proposition, for whilst the level of competition in the insular competition is good, there are some very capable teams who did not make the grade. Crystal Palace, for example, competed at Category One level last season but failed to match up this summer and are on the outside looking in. The cup represents an ample opportunity for them, as well as the likes of Nottingham Forest and Queens Park Rangers, to show up some of the bigger boys.

Premier Academy League
Whilst the Under-21 league stumbles towards the right solution, the Under-18 league is getting closer. The same 22 clubs have been split into two equal divisions of eleven teams, North and South, and each team plays one another at least once. There are home and away clashes against everyone within a division, whilst the other eleven teams are played home or away in the same grouping style as at Under-21 level. A total of 31 games are on the slate, which is an increase on last season and even up on the old format in place for much of the 00-decade, which handled 28 games.

A post-season playoff is also in effect between the top two teams in each regional division, and over-age players are not permitted except in the case of goalkeepers and in the rare circumstances where a third-year scholar has missed a considerable portion of one of his two previous seasons. Saturday mornings will still play host to the majority of games, but some midweek dates have been added to mix things up.

NextGen Series
When Mark Warburton and Justin Andrews launched the Next Generation Series in the summer of 2011, it was met with no little interest, but a certain element of doubt. Sixteen teams were initially invited and Inter triumphed over Ajax in a Final at Leyton Orient’s Matchroom Stadium.

Duly impressed, clubs lined up to join the expanded second season format. Chelsea were amongst those, and went on to reach the second Final, this time played in Como in Italy, where Aston Villa ran out 2-0 winners on Easter Monday.

The Blues penned a two-year agreement with the organisers and despite a packed schedule this coming season, will honour it with every intention of going one step further and getting their hands on the trophy. Dermot Drummy will coach the team and due to the switch to the Under-20 age group, will have pretty much the same personnel available to him as he did last season.

This group of players brushed Ajax, Barcelona, Juventus and Arsenal aside in often scintillating fashion last season and will fancy themselves to be able to do so again.

Expected Squad: Jamal Blackman, Mitchell Beeney, Alex Davey, Andreas Christensen, Adam Nditi, Kevin Wright, Tika Musonda, Ola Aina, Fankaty Dabo, Lewis Baker, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Anjur Osmanovic, Isak Ssewankambo, John Swift, Jeremie Boga, Bertrand Traore, Isaiah Brown, Islam Feruz, Alex Kiwomya.

UEFA Youth League
The success of the NextGen Series managed to prick the ears of UEFA, who, probably concerned that they were losing out on a Euro or two, decided to launch their own rival competition, the UEFA Youth League. Strictly for Under-19 teams (players born January 1st 1995 or later), it will mirror the exact UEFA Champions League competition from the Group Stage, with the 32 teams involved all playing off at youth level during the same matchweek as their senior counterparts. Had it been running last season, for instance, Chelsea would have met Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Nordsjaelland.

A very valid criticism of the restricted entry criteria is that top-class academies like Aston Villa and Sporting Lisbon, two of the last four in the NextGen Series, would stand little to no chance of involvement in the foreseeable future because their first teams are in periods of struggle. Youngsters of great potential will be on the outside looking in, which is why the longevity NextGen Series is of huge importance to the game.

UEFA are also insistent on a rule which decrees that once a player features three times in the Champions League, they become ineligible for the baby version. That effectively means that should Jose Mourinho want to give Ruben Loftus-Cheek three substitute appearances for a total of three minutes in the group stage, he would be ruled out of the youth league for good. It hardly fosters a progressive mentality and when clubs are faced with these decisions, they’re less likely to dole out much-needed first-team playing time.

Nonetheless, it will be good to see Chelsea go along for the ride, and they threaten to be one of the youngest sides involved, as Adi Viveash and his Under-18s are set to take this on whilst Drummy and the older Under-21s do the NextGen. As we’ve seen before, age is no restriction to their chances of success.

Expected Squad: Ben Killip, Brad Collins, Ola Aina, George Brady, Jay Da Silva, Jordan Houghton, Ali Suljic, Jonathan Muleba, George Cole, Kasey Palmer, Charlie Colkett, Charly Musonda, Josimar Quintero, Ruben Sammut, Isaac Christie-Davies, Mukhtar Ali, Chike Kandi, Reece Mitchell, Dominic Solanke.

FA Youth Cup
The FA Youth Cup is one the club have made their own. Their six-year record reads runners up, fifth round, winners, semi finalists, winners, runners-up, and they’re a cert to be involved at the business end of things once again. The midfield depth available to Adi Viveash alone is enough to make every rival jealous, with his likely backup options able to comprise a starting group for just about everyone else. One or two influential players in last season’s run to the Final have since graduated, but when you can add a slew of newly-eligible schoolboys whilst still being able to count upon Jeremie Boga and Islam Feruz, you’ve got a chance.

The Blues enter things in Round Three, the draw for which is made in December. A full and detailed focus on the Youth Cup will be available then, as per usual.

Coming tomorrow…a look at the 21 teams Chelsea will face in domestic youth football next season