Academy Preview 2014-15: Part One – The Competitions

We’re back with another season of football set to begin at Category One level and if the previous seasons are anything to go by it’ll be an intoxicating ten months with no shortage of drama and plenty of promise.

Here at we’re taking a look at what to expect from the 2014-15 season and we begin by going through the various competitions Chelsea will be involved in.

Barclays Under-21 Premier League

A new year means a new manager and whilst memories of lifting silverware at Old Trafford linger, there will be no resting on laurels for an Under-21 team that looks to have as much depth as it has for a long time. They’ll need it too, for they face a loaded schedule as a result of finishing in the top eleven teams last season.

Twelve teams (Tottenham earned a reprieve following the expansion of Category One) line up in Division One and another twelve in Division Two as the Barclays Under-21 Premier League incorporates promotion and relegation for the first time. It promises to up the stakes with every point now directly impacting a team’s affairs.

If you think playing in one division or another doesn’t matter very much ask Arsenal; their poor campaign last time out means they’ll be facing the likes of Blackburn, Bolton, Derby and Stoke whilst Chelsea square off against Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Fulham. Academies long for a best-on-best setup and those twelve elite spots will certainly be hard-fought and well-earned come the end of the season.

It’s a simple format as teams play each other home and away with no post-season playoffs. The team atop Division One will be crowned champions whilst the bottom two will exchange places with the best pair from Division Two. Expect to see a few matches televised by both Sky Sports and BT Sport during the year as the Premier League seek to bring as much of the top-flight match day experience to the next generation as possible.

Barclays Under-21 Premier League Cup(s)

Another part of exposing the starlets of today to the world of tomorrow is their games programme. Last season saw the launch of an Under-21 Cup that brought knockout football and real-terms importance to more fixtures and it was Reading who pipped Manchester City to the post in an entertaining two-legged final.

Chelsea fell to Arsenal at the Quarter Final stage and it goes without saying that they’ll be keen to avenge that disappointment when they enter things again in late October or early November. Before then, Category Two teams (and a select number of lower ranked sides) will scrap it out for the right to earn a plum tie against the big boys.

An addition for 2014-15 though is the Under-21 International Cup. As of right now it’s shrouded in a little mystery but the Daily Mail claim eight English sides will be joined by eight European teams to make up four groups of four where everyone plays everyone else home and away before embarking upon a knockout phase.

In that regard it appears a little similar to the ill-fated NextGen Series and Chelsea’s involvement in a second continental competition will have factored in the disappointing demise of a fledgling competition they finished runners-up in back in 2013. Celtic, Athletic Bilbao, Benfica, Borussia Monchengladbach, Schalke, FC Porto, PSV Eindhoven, and Villarreal are in line to join Chelsea, Fulham, Leicester City, Man City, Man Utd, Southampton, Sunderland and West Ham and although the draw and exact format is yet to be announced (or indeed ratified by UEFA), Porto were included on the official Under-21 fixture list released by Chelsea a fortnight ago.

Barclays Under-18 Premier League

Another year, another restructure to the Under-18 league setup. This time we’re going back to how things sort-of looked in 2012-13 when teams spent half the season playing for a spot amongst the elite teams in search of academy title glory.

The twenty-four Category One teams have been split into two roughly geographical groups and will play 22 games in the initial phase of competition, home and away against eleven other sides. At the end of February the top eight (top four in each section) will break away into Group A to contest the title whilst the middle and bottom eights will drift off into Groups B and C to play out their remaining seven games. The two higher ranking seeds from each section are afforded an additional home fixture in that final portion of the campaign.

It presents an interesting situation for Chelsea, who have traditionally been involved in the business end of so many competitions from March onwards that the league schedule has often taken a back seat with any number of schoolboys drafted in to dip their youthful toes in the water. If, as expected, the group performs well and qualifies for Group A (as they did in 2012-13) whilst still contesting the FA Youth Cup and UEFA Youth League then it could well fall upon the next generation to hold their own and play for real tangible reward at such an early stage of their careers.

If that needs to happen then so be it; Neil Bath and his entire staff have never been shy to push players to challenges above and beyond their own standard in the never-ending bid to accelerate development and in the grand scheme of things they’ll be better for the experience. Then again, perhaps it’s a little presumptive to be discussing the prospect with a strong Southern group needing to be navigated first and foremost, but they’re amongst the favourites as the big kick-off approaches.

FA Youth Cup

The standard has been set. Three FA Youth Cups in five years; five finals in seven years and three of those consecutively in the run up to last April’s dramatic and memorable triumph. Despite a public admittance of a bias towards other competitions last season Chelsea’s youngsters refused to go quietly into the night and a very young, predominantly home-grown group of players went where Conor Clifford, Josh McEachran, Jeffrey Bruma, Nathaniel Chalobah, Lewis Baker and others have trodden previously.

Viveash hands over to Joe Edwards, his very able assistant over the last three seasons, and it will be a case of going again. With a healthy number of last year’s victors eligible to return it would take a bold man to bet against the Blues and any team capable of fielding Jeremie Boga, Isaiah Brown, Charly Musonda and Dominic Solanke as a front four will terrify the best of opponents before you even get to the Jay Dasilvas and Ola Ainas of the squad.

As usual, the real interest will begin in Round Three early in December with each round following roughly four weeks later. Home ties are likely to be played at Aldershot Town’s EBB Stadium until they shift to Stamford Bridge if the Semi Final stages are reached.

UEFA Youth League

Playing domestic opposition simply isn’t enough. The Blues have enjoyed their forays into Europe with that spectacular NextGen Series display and then a fine debut in the UEFA Youth League before disappointingly exiting at the hands of Schalke in the last eight. By virtue of the first team qualifying for the Champions League the Under-19s will be back for more and their draw will mirror that of the top competition. Last season that meant some very comfortable outings against Basel and Steaua Bucharest but such is the luck of the draw; this time around it could be Paris Saint-Germain, Ajax and Anderlecht.

Matches are typically played in the same game weeks as the Champions League and that allows for the younger boys to share a travel itinerary with their senior counterparts, an experience that has repeatedly been spoken highly by the academy coaching staff. The knockout stages are more independent with an open draw and single-leg fixtures all the way to the Semi Finals and Final. They’re played over a long weekend at a neutral location yet to be confirmed for the new season having been down the road from UEFA Headquarters in Nyon last season.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the teams Chelsea will be up against at Under-21 and Under-18 level.