It would be easy to take a despondent view of the youth team’s season, at least if you consider that they reached the Final of both the NextGen Series and the FA Youth Cup only to fall at the final hurdle.
Yet it’s precisely because, for the fourth season running, the young Blues have found themselves in marquee occasions playing for prestigious silverware that the outlook remains exceptionally positive. There are scant few clubs in the county who are able to speak of on-pitch academy records like Chelsea have put up in recent years – Fulham are perhaps the only one who come close with three Under-18 National League Final outings in a row – and whilst the success in translating that to the first team is yet to come, they are clearly on the right path.
Entering the campaign with as large a squad of eligible Under-18 (Under-19 for the NextGen Series, although the core of the squad were eligible for both) players as they ever have done, there was a clear aim to be competitive on every front, both in weekly league fixtures and in the cup competitions which ran throughout the season.
An unusual and favourable fixture list saw the youth team begin their new-league slate of games – created by a revamped playing structure under the EPPP guidelines – with six consecutive home games. Adi Viveash’s boys won all six to put themselves in the ascendancy, and whilst their form in the following six away games was less spectacular, they suffered just one defeat in twelve and were the highest-ranked team to qualify for the post-Christmas ‘Elite’ phase of competition.
Unfortunately, they weren’t able to keep that run going in a second half of the season heavily affected by injury and a packed cup schedule, but that was always likely to happen. Once again, it instead facilitated involvement for a crop of very talented Under-16s and Under-15s who we’ll be seeing a lot more of going forward. They got valuable playing time against a number of supremely talented and capable Under-18 teams and their development will have been done the world of good for the challenge they’ve been able to face.
That’s the way the academy operates though, and it was rarely greater evidenced than the body of players which made up the teams competing for silverware at home and overseas. Schoolboys Jeremie Boga, Charlie Colkett and Connor Hunte all made their presence felt at every level whilst Ola Aina and Charly Musonda both came into the reckoning later on when more options were required.
Sure, Chelsea could perhaps have won two cups with their ‘strongest’ available teams; Nathaniel Chalobah was eligible to feature in both, whilst he, Patrick Bamford, Lucas Piazon, Thorgan Hazard, Todd Kane and others all played in the group stages of the NextGen European jaunt.
That approach, though, would have minimal tangible benefit. Instead of having them tread water in search of glory, they’ve all been pushed on to bigger and bolder things in the professional game – the international game in the case of one or two – and asked the lads on the next rung of the ladder to continue climbing.
The same will happen next year, and the demands will be increased even more when they take their place in the UEFA Under-19 Champions League, which will replicate the group stage draw of the competition proper and run alongside the NextGen Series, for one year at least.
The finals themselves were ultimately disappointing in isolation, especially after the boys played some scintillating football en route to them. They had more than enough chances to win both games but across the three matches they conceded four penalties and scored an own goal to boot. Viveash spoke of small lessons to be learned and the need to score goals when opportunities arise, and they’ll be valuable experiences as these players develop.
Alex Kiwomya and Islam Feruz both netted ten goals (Feruz added more at Under-21 level), with the majority of them coming in the cups, whilst Lewis Baker, Jeremie Boga and Connor Hunte all weighed in with their fair share whenever they turned out for the Under-18 teams. In the league, Reece Mitchell had a stellar first half of the season before breaking his leg, laying on seven goals for his team-mates to remain the leading assist maker despite his premature end to the campaign.
Dion Conroy, Jordan Houghton, Jesse Starkey, Isak Ssewankambo, Jonathan Muleba, Fankaty Dabo and Kevin Wright all enjoyed productive first scholarship years and all bar the injured Houghton were given Under-21 bows before the end of the season. Towards April and May the likes of Ambrose Gnahore, George Cole and Chike Kandi saw increased playing time and they will feature heavily next season alongside the incoming group of already experienced first years.
Of course, there’s always departures in youth football, and to that end best wishes go to Nortei Nortey, Tom Howard, Ismail Seremba, Samuel Bangura and Walter Figueira as they leave Chelsea in search of the next step in their careers.
It’s been another fascinating ten months in the world of youth football. It all kicks off again in July, and we’ll do it all all over, with just as much fun.
Coming tomorrow…the Under-21s.