In the fledgling weeks of the 2013-14 season, Chelsea’s Academy Manager Neil Bath revealed that it was his and the club’s intention to treat the Barclays Under-21 Premier League perhaps more seriously than they have in previous years.
That’s not to say that they haven’t approached it with anything less than professional commitment in recent times, but the sentiment was different this time. They were targeting silverware.
Ten months later, goals from Charly Musonda and Lewis Baker made that a reality as Dermot Drummy’s team triumphed 2-1 over Manchester United at Old Trafford in the national final. The two goalscorers represented different ends of the ethos involved at this age group whilst the success was all the sweeter for overcoming two difficult away trips in Manchester (including a Semi Final at City) by choice after conceding the home advantage earned by finishing top the league table after 21 regular season fixtures.
In the post-match victory celebrations at England’s largest club stadium, Drummy made the point that his boys had won it twice. Indeed they had, for they had already proven themselves the best in the country between August and May. An eleven-match unbeaten run in the heart of the season provided the foundation for success and their only defeat away from home came at Everton in late September.
Home defeats against a strong Tottenham Hotspur team on the opening day and against a title-contending Liverpool team were doubtless disappointing but the young boys grew up as the season wore on and they made their presence felt at big Premier League stadia; Stamford Bridge, The Stadium of Light, St. James’s Park, The Brittania, Villa Park, The Emirates and more. Every big test was passed and it was all the more impressive considering the players involved; sixteen, seventeen and eighteen year-olds regularly coming out on top against bigger and older foes.
Goalkeeper Jamal Blackman, a penalty shootout hero at the Etihad Stadium in the Semi Final, was the oldest player involved in at the business end of things. He’s 20. Baker – the outstanding player not just for Chelsea but league-wide – turned 19 last month, and the average age of the team was in the mid 18s.
Andreas Christensen was 17 for most of the season, Musonda will be the same age until early next season, as will Ola AIna, who performed superbly when making his first three starts at this level in the three toughest matches at the end of the campaign. Just for good measure, he did so at centre-back, a position he has relatively little experience in.
The contributions were varied and consistent across every position but it was Baker and midfield cohort John Swift who produced the longest-lasting memories. With eighteen goals in all competitions, Baker led the scoring charts with three more than his England Under-19 colleague, and both were rewarded with first team debuts by Jose Mourinho.
For Baker, it was a predictable next step after an outstanding 2012-13 in which he was named the Most Valuable Player of the NextGen Series competition. For Swift however, it was the most pleasing of breakthrough seasons. Twelve months ago he struggled to hold down a regular place in the team with Baker, Jeremie Boga, Alex Kiwomya and Islam Feruz in top form, but a prolific pre-season of some half a dozen goals promised much, and he simply went from strength to strength.
Continental competition this time proved his forte. The NextGen Series took a year off due to lack of sponsors and so Chelsea went all-in on the UEFA Youth League; an upstart competition mirroring the Champions League that almost certainly directly affected the smaller-scale NextGen organisation that the Blues had signed a two-year commitment to. A group featuring Schalke, Basel and Steaua Bucharest looked relatively routine on paper and six wins from six showed as much as the Under-19s were the only team to progress with a 100% record, led by Swift’s five strikes.
An emphatic 4-1 victory over Milan in the Round of 16 – featuring two spectacular Baker efforts, predictably – gave every reason to think of something else to add to the trophy cabinet, but a below-part outing against Schalke in the Quarter Finals saw them bow out in disappointing fashion. The Germans had shown enough during the two group stage clashes to not be taken lightly but their 3-1 win at Cobham was something of a wake-up call to Drummy and his players.
In their nine remaining league matches (including the playoffs), they dropped just two results. Everyone else was brushed aside with their eyes set firmly on the prize they coveted in August. For a number of the squad it was a second celebration inside a fortnight with the FA Youth Cup returning to reside in SW6 once again, and whilst the games programme at development level isn’t as good as many would like, Chelsea are certainly making the best of it.
Youth Cup Finals. European Finals. Reserve and Under-21 League Finals. Playing for tangible reward in front of healthy crowds (some 13,000 took in the Old Trafford showpiece) in televised fixtures (on Sky Sports and BT Sport no less) whilst wearing the Blue shirt of your own club is as good as it gets right now and the last five seasons have provided at least one such occasion for the academy.
Both Drummy and opposing coach Warren Joyce were at pains to point out how badly the powers that be needed to make sure these events were repeatable on a weekly basis if their prospects are to make the strides they so need to, and with Greg Dyke’s FA Commission promoting their B Team agenda this month, the debate will run throughout the summer.
In the meantime, Chelsea have done and are doing everything they possibly can. They compete for and win domestic silverware with teams of players two, three, sometimes four years underneath the maximum age allowance. Their loanees perform with style, substance and record-breaking statistical production. The first-team chances may be few and far between but the glimmer of light shone on two home-grown midfielders and the Czech defender Tomas Kalas this term.
It’s not easy; if it was, everybody would do it and do it well. Few can say they’ve been a match for Chelsea on the pitch between the ages of 12 and 21 in the past decade, but that’s not enough for Bath, Drummy and company. They want their boys in Mourinho’s dressing room. That ambition never leaves the centre of their attention and whilst the next step is easily the biggest, seasons like this allow them to dream that little bit more that the breakthrough is closer it was last summer.