It’s tough to know where to begin when looking back on the 2014-15 Chelsea academy season. Do you highlight a fourth FA Youth Cup in six years and becoming only the second team in the last ten years to retain the trophy? How about being the first English side to be crowned UEFA Youth League Champions? The club’s Under-21 and Under-18 groups each mounted title challenges before falling away to finish 3rd in their respective divisions, whilst no fewer than four players graduated to make first team debuts under Jose Mourinho.
It’s been a bit of a good one.
The progression of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Dominic Solanke, Isaiah Brown and Andreas Christensen into the first team picture should rightfully take pride of place at the top of the academy’s list as ultimately that’s what it’s all about, but when looking back over the past ten months it’s hard not to talk about the UEFA Youth League success. Having reached the last eight of the maiden edition of the competition last season only to fall at the hands of Schalke, there was something of a feeling around Cobham that they hadn’t quite done themselves justice and were better than their final showing would show.
After all, Dermot Drummy’s side – as it was then – had completed a perfect group stage with six wins from six against Basel, Steaua Bucharest and their eventual foes from Gelsenkirchen, whilst also slaying Milan 4-0 in the round of sixteen. With a new coach in charge in Adi Viveash and a group of players largely able to return for another crack at the title, they were able to set out their intentions nice and early with Schalke first up in the 14-15 group stage.
It was a match that would have dramatic repercussions for the aforementioned quartet; they were integral to a swashbuckling 4-1 victory that laid the foundations for their senior involvement yet to come. Loftus-Cheek’s thundering, rampaging run through white shirt after white shirt for Solanke’s second of the afternoon will live long in the memory of those who witnessed it, whilst another buccaneering drive forward later in the game gave Brown – captain for the campaign – the chance to get in on the act as well.
If anything it was a more impressive group stage this time around than it had been before. They weren’t quite able to go six-for-six, losing away to Schalke in the return fixture, but 24 goals in the remaining matches against Sporting CP and Maribor ensured a top seeding for the round of sixteen and a home date with Zenit St Petersburg.
They saw that off with relative ease before battling to a 2-0 victory over Atlético Madrid to book their place in the Finals weekend on the banks of Lake Geneva in Nyon, Switzerland. Then they came into their own; a cagey first half in the Semi Final against Roma gave way to an unstoppable second in which they roared to a 4-0 victory, and it was much the same story in the Final against Shakhtar Donetsk. Brown’s early goal was cancelled out by Christensen’s unfortunate own goal but their clinical, ruthless approach came to the fore again when it was needed most; Solanke and Brown putting the tie to bed early in the second half to ensure a 3-2 victory and bring the trophy back home with them.
Solanke finished as the tournament’s leading goalscorer with a remarkable 12 goals in 9 appearances, part of a staggering tally of 41 goals overall. Perhaps even more staggering, however, was that he was matched goal for goal by Tammy Abraham; eighteen days his junior, his goals weren’t quite spread out across all forms of football but he impacted more challenging levels later in the campaign en route to 41 of his own at a rate of one every 69 minutes.
They combined for nineteen during the latest FA Youth Cup success in a run unprecedented in any modern era. You have to go back to the fledgling days of the cup in the 1950s for a comparable spell of dominance when Manchester United dictated things: this Chelsea team having achieved successes in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2015, with a final defeat in 2013 to boot. This latest one might even have been the ‘easiest’ if such a concept exists, with resounding victories at home to Huddersfield Town (6-1) and Swansea City (6-0) sandwiched by testing trips up north to Leeds (2-0) and Newcastle (3-0 after extra time) before getting into the nitty-gritty of two-legged Semi Final and Finals.
A London derby against Tottenham in the last four threatened to go badly when Joe Edwards’ young charges were beaten 2-0 at White Hart Lane, but this is Chelsea and this is the FA Youth Cup. It wouldn’t quite be the same if there wasn’t a dash of drama and an unlikely comeback thrown in along the way, and after falling further behind early in the return leg, five unanswered goals in a devastating 31-minute spell meant another final showdown.
This time, as it was in 2008 for their first final in nearly fifty years, Manchester City were the opposition. Then it was Daniel Sturridge and company celebrating a 4-2 aggregate victory but Chelsea barely gave them a sniff seven years on. Abraham’s brace and Solanke’s late back-breaker confirmed a 3-1 first leg victory and another from Abraham after Brown had equalised Kelechi Iheanacho’s opener in front of nearly 11,000 fans at Stamford Bridge allowed Charlie Colkett to follow in the footsteps of Loftus-Cheek, Nathaniel Chalobah and Conor Clifford in lifting the prestigious trophy to the heavens.
Typically, competing so extensively across all fronts has meant the league campaigns taking something of a back seat, and it was little different again this season. It’s therefore testament to the work put in by Viveash, Edwards and the ever-broadening groups of players at Under-21 and Under-18 levels that they were each in the title discussion until the final round of fixtures. A backlog of fixtures at the elder level allowed them to pick up a head of steam in April and May, at one point holding their fate in their own hands before slipping up away to Sunderland when the demands of the schedule became a tad too much for their young legs to handle.
Fielding a team average the age of just over 18 throughout, a strong start in a thin fixture list before Christmas had them well set but a run of three defeats and four without a win early in the new year looked to have put an end to aspirations of retaining the honours claimed in fine style at Old Trafford the previous May. But on they went, using the momentum generated by winning two trophies back-to-back to beat Everton, Southampton, Fulham and Liverpool in a 14-day period. Then came the defeat to Sunderland and the crushing last-minute reverse at home to West Ham, a result that confirmed the Blues relinquished their league crown to Manchester United.
It was a mixed group that got them there too; a number of Youth Cup and UEFA Youth League winners alongside a clutch of older players like captain Jordan Houghton, Fankaty Dabo, Dion Conroy, Reece Mitchell and Mitchell Beeney. They lost Alex Davey, Nathan Aké, Lewis Baker, John Swift and more to loan spells during the campaign but were always able to adapt with fresh opportunities for the next man up, and they can rightly be proud of a very impressive title defence overall.
It’s been more than thirty years since Chelsea won a league title at youth team level but under the fresh stewardship of one-time academy youngster Edwards (and Assistant Manager Jody Morris), the latest crop of scholars flew out of the traps with six wins in their opening eight matches. Abraham provided the potency in attack but everyone chipped in, culminating with an unbelievable 12-2 victory over Aston Villa on a record-breaking October morning at Cobham.
That gave way to a slight blip with consecutive defeats at Brighton and Reading but the boys dusted themselves off to go on a run of ten without defeat to set themselves up as Southern section winners and one of seven teams to qualify for the end of season playoff group contesting the national title. Defeats at home to Middlesbrough and Everton derailed their charge in what would prove to ultimately be a fatal manner but, led a group of schoolboys in the season’s final weeks, they very nearly hauled themselves back into contention only to effectively run out of fixtures.
The academy coaching staff will have known that was very much a possibility heading into the season but they never shy away from testing their best schoolboys in a more challenging environment and have once again made a point of giving their best and brightest the chance to move forward at a quicker rate. Five of last summer’s first-year scholars finished the season as Under-21 regulars (Solanke, Abraham, Jay Dasilva, Jake Clarke-Salter and Fikayo Tomori) whilst a further three in Kyle Scott, Ruben Sammut and Mukhtar Ali took baby steps into the setup. That meant the likes of Josh Grant (24 appearances), Iké Ugbo (18 appearances, 11 goals) and Trevoh Chalobah (10 appearances) got plenty of exposure as schoolboys and supported the foundation of a group that also saw Miro Muheim, Isaac Christie-Davies and Charlie Wakefield as key contributors in a variety of roles.
With so many reasons to be positive after another breathless and memorable season of youth football, it’s only right that the biggest reason to celebrate came at the very top. Solanke was first, completing the journey from a baby-faced eight year-old to first team player when he debuted against NK Maribor in October. He was followed a week later by Christensen, who was entrusted with a start against Shrewsbury in the League Cup, before Loftus-Cheek made it three by Christmas as Mourinho granted him a cameo against Sporting CP.
The intensity of the title race meant it was May before any of them got another look (beyond Christensen’s FA Cup appearance against Bradford) but when the Premier League had been won, Loftus-Cheek made further strides in starting versus both Liverpool and West Brom, whilst Brown made his Chelsea bow away to his former club in the latter fixture. Christensen’s first league outing arrived in the closing moments on the final day and there were also fleeting appearances as unused substitutes for Baker, Mitchell Beeney and Jeremie Boga along the way.
More than a few of them will hope to make an impression in Thailand and Australia over the next week before going on a well earned summer break. With each passing year the academy produces the goods in almost incomprehensible amounts and they’re beginning to make it almost possible to ignore them, as evidenced by Mourinho’s increasing willingness (by his own standards, admittedly) to include them in his plans. A big summer awaits, but for now it’s time to reflect on a good job very well done by everyone in 2014-15.
(Photo courtesy of the excellent Dan Davies – @ChelseaYouthPix)