The Under-21 season at Chelsea can probably be summed up by an off-hand comment a prominent member of the academy coaching staff before a late-season game at Cobham against Everton.
“So much for this new Under-21 league eh?”
Last August, we were told that a new era of youth development was being ushered in when the Elite Player Performance Plan came into effect. Part of that was a ‘revamped’ Professional Development League at Under-21 level, with rules limiting over-age players and pushing for matches played between high-quality squads in stadia where fans could go to watch the players of tomorrow.
Clubs were said to be encouraged to keep their best players on their books rather than ferry them off out on loan in a bid to increase the quality of the product on the pitch. One or two did, but Chelsea loaned out a record high players – exceeding 30 – over the course of the campaign, and combined with the fact that nearly half of all U21 league fixtures were played at training grounds and behind closed doors, very little actually changed from the previous Reserve team setup.
Of course, the Premier League claim that the overall standard of play was better, but that can be attributed in large part to the improvements made in coaching in the last few years at junior level, with the players exposed to better learning now coming through at more notable levels.
Essentially, the only change for Chelsea was a fresh fixture list, which saw them take on sides from all round the country rather than just the Southern-based clubs. A return to Brentford’s Griffin Park only lasted for the first half of the season, with six of the last seven games played in front of no crowd at the club’s training ground, whilst even Chelsea TV’s live coverage of fixtures tapered off late in the season. The club’s official station showed just two of the last ten fixtures live, and scarcely carried considerable highlights either.
Throw it all together and you’re once again left with an environment which is hardly ideal for players to make the next step at the most crucial juncture of their careers. Whilst the national rhetoric has largely been to focus on grass-roots development and improved youth coaching, the glaring fact remains that when a player turns 18, the options available to him are scarce.
He’s unlikely to be good enough right away to jump into the first team, and most of the time isn’t ready for a loan spell. Even if he is, it’s not so simple as to just go out and find him a home. Options are finite as the shortlist of possible destinations is whittled down by playing style, potential playing time and those with the available resources, and so oftentimes the player is kept around to play in a Reserve – now Under-21 – league which feels empty and soulless, giving little by way of a taster of what it feels like to play for point, to play in front of a crowd, and to play with a purpose.
New Manchester United manager David Moyes is the latest high-profile name to lend his voice to those calling for B Teams to be allowed into the football league structure, whilst even some lower league bosses – Brentford’s Uwe Rosler most notably – have backed the idea. It’s clearly a non-starter of an idea for so many reasons but unless considerable changes are made in the 18-21 age group, we’re going to be going through the same charade every year and continue to ask ourselves why English (based) youngsters fail to make the same progress as some of their continental contemporaries.
Taking everything on face value this past season though, Chelsea did fairly well. They were ultimately let down in their pursuit of silverware by two spells of five games without a win, but otherwise they performed very well with what was statistically the Under-21 league’s youngest team.
Ten appearances for schoolboy Jeremie Boga and seven for fellow Under-16 Connor Hunte contributed heavily to that, but both got their opportunities on merit and showed that they were not just there to make up the numbers by weighing in with five combined goals; goals which also earned points and victories rather than just adding gloss to a result.
The core of the squad was made up of more experienced faces in Lewis Baker, Nathan Aké, Alex Davey, Billy Clifford and George Saville, but with loan moves materialising all over the place, a total of 43 players saw time under Drummy this season and all did so not only deservingly, but were up to the task to boot.
Islam Feruz – still a first year scholar by age – finished as leading scorer with eight goals, two more than the always impressive Baker, with Patrick Bamford grabbing four early strikes before departing to the MK Dons on loan. So impressive was Bamford that he also notched six assists, which was a team high, whilst Baker laid on five of his own to assert himself as one of the club’s outstanding players of 2012-13 in any age group.
We said goodbye to Conor Clifford, Adam Coombes, Rohan Ince, James Ashton and Ben Gordon midway through the season as Chelsea offered the quintet an early release from contracts which were set to expire this summer, whilst this summer will also see another few depart as the annual shake-up of the final ‘youth’ age group gets underway.
Next season’s team will likely feature much of this past season’s FA Youth Cup squad, as regulars Davey, Baker and Feruz are joined by John Swift, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Adam Nditi and Alex Kiwomya on a more regular basis.
Hopefully, they’ll be able to kick off the 2013-14 campaign in a league which will have undergone summer changes by the Premier League to give them a better learning experience at this level. Whispers suggest the powers that be will be reviewing affairs; we live in hope that they’ll find the same glaring flaws that many have, and are able to address them as best they can for now.
Coming tomorrow…an international recap