Academy Season Review: Under-18s

For the third time in five seasons, Chelsea are the FA Youth Cup holders. Their latest success will live in academy folklore for years to come as Adi Viveash’s boys rescued themselves from two goals behind on aggregate to defeat Fulham in the last minute of a breathless tie against West London neighbours Fulham to eventually triumph 7-6 over the course of two epic legs.

It was a fitting conclusion to another very positive season for the entire operation which, headed by Neil Bath and Jim Fraser and supported by a cast of dozens is as strong as any in Europe within each respective age group.

With player stretched across three or four different competitions at any one time during the final third of the season, no fewer than 22 different schoolboys received exposure to competitive Under-18 football and many of them were regulars over the course of the season. No other club can claim such strength in depth and that much is testament to the pursuit of excellence at every turn.

One of those twenty-two, Dominic Solanke, represents everything Bath and company are trying to achieve. A Chelsea player since the age of eight and sourced in the South East, he’s made his way through the age groups and blossomed into a prolific yet versatile centre-forward before reaching scholarship age. He’s equally capable on either foot, he’s quick and powerful, and he possesses the maturity of play to be an effective creator as well as finisher.

Despite being an Under-16, he turned in the club’s first twenty-goal youth team season in well over a decade and weighed in with a dozen or so assists for good measure. And he wasn’t alone either; Jay Dasilva ranked amongst the leading appearance makers whilst Mukhtar Ali and Tammy Abraham weren’t far behind either, and Jake Clarke-Salter emerged as a first choice at centre-back in the Youth Cup Semi Finals.

A 4-1 win over Bolton Wanderers in early April saw seven schoolboys contribute with three amongst them as young as Under-15; a fact the defeated Bolton coaching staff simply could not believe. The quality stretches down the ranks far enough that Chelsea can beat established Category One opposition with what has to be considered their third or fourth choice teams and when the likes of Trevoh Chalobah – Nathaniel’s younger brother – can hold their own in defence against forwards four years their senior, things are going very well indeed.

This year’s Youth Cup campaign was all the sweeter not just for the five players who experienced the pain of defeat at the hands of Norwich last season, but also because by their own admission the club intended to treat it rather differently this season. Back in October, Bath made his priorities clear:

“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.”

Few teams could compete on multiple fronts yet we sit here eight months later with more silverware in the trophy cabinet and considering potential waiting for a chance to hit the spotlight. As usual, it meant the Under-18 league took something of a back seat but even then they were very much in contention at the turn of the year after a stellar period featuring prolific form from Solanke, Kasey Palmer and Ambrose Gnahore in particular.

They racked up 42 goals in 15 games with the dynamic trio responsible for over half of that tally, but as they all moved on to bigger and better things in 2014, it simply allowed for those next in line to get their opportunities. Those next in line have been full-time since the implementation of the Elite Player Performance plan, spending their days at Cobham receiving their education both on and off the pitch, and the expectations are kept suitably high for them to take the next step in 14-15.

Classroom grades are reportedly as impressive as any club have produced since they were given the freedom to educate their own players, whilst the product on the pitch is as strong as ever. Another dozen or so scholars will put pen to paper next month and they’re largely locally sourced and have come through from primary school age. Beyond those, expect to see the Trevoh Chalobahs, Iké Ugbos and Cole Dasilvas of this world continue to add to their experiences as Under-15s by becoming reliable contributors whilst still at pre-scholar age.

Back in October Viveash noted that the true value of having the next crop of full-time players training with the group whilst still in secondary education is to accelerate their tactical and mental development. By exposing them to a higher level of competition at an increasingly younger age they’re put in a position where they have to find the answers to harder questions and stretch themselves in the constant battle to improve.

Rather than continue within their own age group and saunter to regularly emphatic wins, the Solankes, Clarke-Salters and Dasilvas of the academy are moving onto bigger and better things whilst leaving their contemporaries at many other clubs behind.

They’re stepping up and making their presence felt on the big stage; the Youth Cup, in first team stadiums and on national television. They’re not just brought along for the ride, they’re front and centre, scoring goals that clinch trophies and bring success. They’re winners before they’re out of Year 11, and then when they do become scholars they’re ready to push for involvement in Dermot Drummy’s ranks.

Ola Aina, Jeremie Boga and Isaiah Brown have set the bar high with their feats as first-years over the past ten months; don’t put it past the incoming group to surpass them.

Arguments can always be made about the progression into the first team ranks at Stamford Bridge but as far as the academy operation itself goes, well, they’re a shining example to the rest of the country.