An Academy Introspective

The international break is typically a quieter period down at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground, and the downtime not only allows the club’s younger players to train with those few seniors not jetting off to represent their countries (and in turn Dermot Drummy taking charge of training sessions), but also for the club as a whole to offer an introspective into how things are progressing in the academy.

In addition to an excellent three-part series on the official website looking at the roles played by former Chelsea players Tore Andre Flo, Jon Harley and Jody Morris in joining the junior coaching setup this summer, the club’s in-house television channel have also spoken to Neil Bath, Adi Viveash and Eddie Newton about what they’ve seen so far and what the plan is going forward.

For long-time observers of the youth setup at Stamford Bridge, the subtle adjustments made this season will have long since been apparent. An expanded Under-21 fixture list including European competition in the form of the UEFA Youth League has become the primary on-field focus this term, with the Under-18s and the FA Youth Cup perhaps taking a back seat. Academy Manager Bath himself explains further:

“Our priority is going to be the Under-21 league. In years gone by , everyone would know that we’d prioritise the Youth Cup, with our Under-21 teams being a bit weaker, but we won’t be doing that this year. This is our priority competition, with the UEFA Youth League. We see the Youth Cup being more of the first years; if there’s a Youth Cup game within a few days of an Under-21 game we’ll be putting the Under-21s first.”

Some of the reasoning behind the approach is doubtless due to the fact that the Under-21 league will split from 22 teams next season into two divisions of eleven teams, meaning the Blues have to finish in the upper half of the league this season to ensure they remain amongst the very best. Bath and his colleagues have repeatedly spoken about the importance of a ‘best on best’ playing approach and they will be determined to put themselves at the business end of every competition.

However, there appears to be more to it than just a case of a league placing. A more determined, professional and direct approach seems to be in effect with the club’s 18, 19 and 20 year-olds, with the aim very much to accelerate their progress at this stage of their development into first-team football, be it at Stamford Bridge or out on loan. For many years this particular group was considered to be arguably the best ever produced by the club and as we approach 2014, the ninth year of the ‘new’ academy, the end of Bath’s ‘ten-year overhaul’ is in sight.

Few will be more qualified to talk about the changes at the Chelsea academy than Eddie Newton. A youth product himself back in the early 90s, he has been in and around things for the best part of 25 years as a player, a youth coach, the first team’s assistant manager, and now as a technical scout. His role is to liaise and interact with and generally look after many of the club’s two dozen loanees, but as a wider remit he has a say in the way certain things are being handled, particularly with Drummy and the Under-21 age group, where many of his players come from.

“You could see how big the academy was going to become here. Chelsea were always vying to be number one; they’re in competition to be the best. That’s what the owner wants, that’s what the manager wants, that’s what everyone at the club wants. It’s not easy, the boys are really developing in all areas, not just on the football pitch; what you don’t see is the education and the lifestyle skills they’re taught, all the things that go along with developing not just a footballer but a human being, and I hope we can continue in this vein.”

On the presence of a growing number of players like himself, Morris, Flo et al amongst the coaching ranks:

“If I had an ex-player sitting down and talking to me about what he had done, and he’s actually won things, not only as a player but as a coach as well, I’d sit down and listen to him because obviously he’s done what I want to do. Tore’s been in that situation, Jon Harley’s had a good career, Jody Morris is around the building, Andy Myers has had a good career, so when you see all of these people around, you’ve got to take from them. The kids here are very good at taking nuggets as they go along just to keep developing themselves.”

When asked how different the development programme is now from when he was a scholar, the former midfielder expounded further:

“It’s light years away. In some ways you can look at it and say ‘do we do too much with the kids right now?’ because back in our day you had to learn on your feet. I think there wasn’t enough done for us when we were playing and we’ve gone full circle; perhaps we do too much for the kids right now. Somewhere in the middle would give you the perfect scenario.”

“With what we’ve got at this club, we have to do everything possible to develop them and get them into that first team building and stay there. What we’re really looking for is boy of 5, 6 and 7, we want a generation to go there and really go from young boys into men and be successful. That’s when you know this academy has done its job.”

Bringing to back to the current day, Newton explained further exactly how and why the focus will shift heavily towards Drummy’s Under-21 group as the season goes on:

“The Under-21 programme is heavy. We’ve got the UEFA Youth League as well and now the Under-21s has gone into a league basis, you’ve got to win, there’s no more just turning up and developing, and they’re going to add the Under-21 Cup as well. I can’t see so many players going out on loan again because we obviously have to make sure that we’re competitive.

There’s a lot of money out there (on loan) and you have to look after your assets. That’s my role, to make sure we’re getting the best out of the players and helping them towards what we want from the individual, to hopefully come back, but we also know that not everyone’s going to be able to come back to play for us, so therefore, can we develop them to be sold?

The loan process is a big part of developing kids and turning them into young men or to meet the demands asked of them day in and day out in the first team building, both physically and mentally. People don’t realise the mental fatigue and stress they go under; training at the highest level, travelling and then being expected not only to perform well but to win all the time. That’s something that brings its own stress and it comes with experience to be able to develop (a resistance towards) that.

It’s more difficult to make that jump now. Our club is playing Champions League on a regular basis. We’ve got internationals everywhere you look. It’s difficult but the club is doing everything possible to make that transition a little bit easier.”

Working with the hugely successful Under-18 team meanwhile, Viveash is generally pleased with what he’s seen so far from a group which has only ever been exposed to an Abramovich-era Chelsea. The likes of Jordan Houghton and Ben Killip joined as Under-8s in 2003 and are the first class to be here exclusively under the current ownership, if not the Arnesen-based academy changes from 2005.

“We’ve won every home game this year which is a real positive. We’re scoring a lot of goals and creating a lot of chances – we need to tighten up at the other end – but I’m generally pleased with the boys and their application. We’ve played a few different systems, our offensive players are in great form at the moment.”

The implementation of the EPPP last summer allowed clubs to take control of the schooling of their own academy players in a bid to vastly open up access time for coaches, and through a relationship with Glyn School, Viveash and Assistant/Under-16 coach Joe Edwards generally have daily access to what is a very youthful squad.

“On a day to day basis it’s a very very young squad, probably the youngest I’ve ever had. Against West Ham on the second day of the season five schoolboys started and two were on the bench, that was a great positive and they’ve done well whenever they’ve played. The difference between Under-16 and Under-18 football is incredible and we like to introduce our best schoolboys at Under-18 level. They’re not all playing but they’re getting used to the way I work a year early; they see the way we’re trying to implement things and I think we can get a year’s tactical information into them. That’s the biggest benefit for me, I’d hope to see a really progressive group of first year scholars next year.”

The EPPP also lifted restrictions on recruitment for Category One clubs, something which Assistant Academy Manager and Head of Recruitment Jim Fraser thinks will massively change the way the club can go about its work:

“The local rules used to only allow you to sign a player aged 9-12 who lived within an hour of Cobham, and then 13 and above had to be within an hour and a half. That’s changed now with the EPPP rules so we’re able to really put a bigger emphasis on national recruitment. We’ve recently signed a boy from Bristol City at Under-14; he’s able to come and join in our full-time school and stays in with a local family.

With that now happening, we’ve got our scouts out all across the country and they’re able to really work with a purpose, to say they’ve seen an Under-14 or an Under-16 player, and we can now go and recruit that player. That’s a big, big rule change; we were restricted by the hour and a half, we certainly made the best of it but now we can really push our boundaries and also put a bit more accountability onto our national scouts.

If we can bring in the best local players from Under-6/7/8 into the Under-9s, always concentrating on London on the South East, but then also top that up with the best English players – especially at Under-14s, to be able to bring them in full-time at Under-15 – and get in that environment of the best local and best UK players, then a year later you’re hoping that the work the international scouts are doing is going to help us bring in the best international players, the likes of a Nathan Aké or an Andreas Christensen. If you bring in those types of players alongside the boys who’ve been here from 6/7/8, we think that’s incredible. We want to make sure we’ve got the best players we possibly can.”

Consider Barcelona’s signing of a then 12 year-old Andres Iniesta from Albacete. At over 500km and nearly 5 hours of travel away, it was the sort of acquisition Chelsea’s academy simply were not allowed to make for the last decade, but the changes in regulations have made it possible.

As Fraser notes, the options are considerably improved and as we move towards an era where the academy can no longer claim it is still in the process of an overhaul but is instead expected to be fully operational and productive for a team of Chelsea’s stature, the right focus and the right people appear very much in place. It promises to be fascinating as we watch on going forward.

(All quotes attributed to Chelsea FC and ChelseaTV)