It’s not unusual to see talented young footballers play above their age group at academy level. Chelsea have done it for years – most clubs do – in a bid to challenge the player by exposing him to a higher level of competition, rather than allow him to potentially stagnate against those he’s already proven himself better than.
You typically see it up to and including Under-18 level, where a lot of players end up hitting a wall and levelling out in their ability. To be pushed into Under-21 football at the age of 15 or 16, however, is something altogether different. It tends to separate the good from the potentially spectacular, and is typically an indicator that the club see something special in that player.
Josh McEachran, Nathaniel Chalobah, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Islam Feruz are just four of the high-profile names still with the club who have benefitted from such an approach, but in Jeremie Boga, Chelsea might have somebody who is capable of blowing everyone else out of the water.
Boga, for those unfamiliar with his tale, joined the Blues in 2008 as an eleven year-old when his family moved from the South of France to London in order for his father to take a new job. Contrary to popular press speculation, he was not affiliated with Olympique Marseille at the time of his departure (although being from the city, he remains a huge OM fan), but rather played for ASPTT Marseille; effectively a large social club with a sports wing.
The next four years saw him work his way through the lesser-seen age groups in the academy at Cobham, leading his teams to tournament success at home and abroad, with many an MVP award handed out to him at the conclusion of affairs. A burgeoning talent was clearly developing, and at the age of just 15 years and 44 days he made his ‘Reserve’ team debut at home to Fulham.
Despite having no Under-18 football to his name at the time, young Jeremie was arguably man of the match in a confident, mature display in his favoured number ten position. He offered glimpses of his beguiling trickery and flair, and vindicated the decision made by the coaching staff to effectively leapfrog the youth team ranks altogether.
In the eighteen months since, Boga has become an Under-21 regular. The extent to which he has done so, however, is alarming when compared to his contemporaries. He begins the 2013-14 season as a first-year scholar by age group, but has played more games above Under-18 level than in Adi Viveash’s team. The table below is stunningly revealing:
Appearances by the end of the player’s U16 season:
[table class=”table table-striped”]
Player,U18 Apps,U19-21 Apps
Josh McEachran,21, 0
He’s obviously has the benefit of the addition of the NextGen Series to the schedule to boost his tally but even if that were to be ignored, he has made startling progress, and what’s more, he’s done it in style. He makes things happen. He’s entrusted to bring pace, skill and goals to the team. He’s leaned upon to at times carry the team on his back and produce the goods when needed. And he’s proven himself up to the challenge, all by the age of just 16.
A look back at his highlights from the 12-13 season shows him at his dynamic best, and in the biggest games to boot. A relentless dribbler – sometimes to his detriment – he petrifies younger opponents when he runs at them. He possesses a wonderful shot, something he needs to make more use of, but the thing that stands out above all is his poise and ability to hit full speed at the click of a finger. One moment he’s standing still, assessing his options, and then just like that, the shoulder drops and he’s gone; a flurry of blue and white driving towards the edge of the area, seeking destruction.
Thus far he’s gone about his business in an understated, almost quiet fashion. There’s never a hint of controversy, no sign of his ascent causing bigheadedness, not even a sense of arrogance typically found in players blessed with attacking excellence. He was recently given the captain’s armband for a couple of Under-21 friendlies, maybe in a bid to bring out some character and leadership in a lad otherwise fairly quiet on the pitch. He just lets his football do the talking.
It begs the question; what’s next? Nobody’s claiming that he’s the finished article yet, and certainly another full-time Under-21 season will see him come along even more, but you can only hope to contain a player like this for so long. Whereas a Chalobah or a Loftus-Cheek (both outstanding in their own right, you won’t need telling) might be a tougher ask for a first-team manager to include because their roles demand so much defensively, a forward like Boga has a little more freedom. He has enough understanding of his duties off the ball to get by, and there is no doubt that he can bring more than enough to the table with the ball at his feet.
Another Frenchman of gifted ability at a tender age, Gael Kakuta, worked his way into the picture by 17. He made fun of Under-18 opponents on a regular basis yet had to wait his time for Under-21 football. It might merely be a sign of the times but Boga is doing things very few players of his years do anywhere in the world – and Jose Mourinho will know it.
In his first spell at Stamford Bridge, he used cup outings against lower league opponents to give a taster of the first team life to 17 year-olds Scott Sinclair and Ben Sahar, and 16 year-old Michael Woods amongst others. Assuming the balls come out of the hat in a favourable fashion, it’s entirely possible that Boga joins the very exclusive list of 16 year-olds to make a Chelsea debut. He won’t quite become the youngest ever – Ian Hamilton’s record is safe for now – but even in a squad blessed with world-class ability in his position, and even with the best will in the world to remain grounded and realistic with his potential, there is a case to be heard to make room for as prodigious a talent as the club have arguably ever produced.
And that’s saying something.