By any stretch of the imagination, by any definition and by any standard you wish to apply, the feats achieved by Chelsea at Under-19 and Under-18 levels over the past three years have been historic.
The younger group became the first side in more than sixty years, and only the second ever, to win three FA Youth Cups in a row, whilst the Under-19s became the first team of any age group in the modern era to retain Europe’s top trophy by retaining the UEFA Youth League. Throw in another year where the club contributed more players to England’s various youth teams than any other club and you have what is indisputably not just England’s leading academy, but perhaps the best in Europe as far as on-field achievements go.
Naturally, the point has been raised – by Guus Hiddink amongst others – that winning competitions alone is no guarantee of a successful passage into senior football, but by equal measure nobody at the academy thinks that either. Their careful development of players demands a winning mentality the closer they get to professional football and a rich, winning culture of competitions from the age of 12 translates into a relentless will to win, to maintain the standards set by their fore-bearers and to raise the bar for the next crop.
Certainly, not all of them will make it and not all of them have the mentality to emerge as the wheat rather than the chaff, but at a time when several casual observers have raised concerns about that sort of thing (led by fairly incongruous reports about Dominic Solanke’s alleged contract demands), some balance must be restored towards the discussion.
By his own admission, all Adi Viveash had to do with last year’s double winners was ‘set them up and watch them go’. With riches like Jeremie Boga, Andreas Christensen, Charly Musonda, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Izzy Browb and Dominic Solanke in at least one if not both sides, Chelsea were often able to simply blow away their opposition with half a dozen players who have, a year later, completed a first professional season.
This year’s group got it done in a different way. It was a home-grown group – both Final-winning matchday squads were comprised entirely of players eligible to represent England – sourced in London and the South East, with roots deep in local development centres and boys who joined the academy aged eight or younger. It was as unified and as determined a bunch of players as has come through the ranks in the past decade and it became clearer and clearer with each passing round that they were not to be denied.
The European run was as demanding as it gets; a confident group campaign saw them drawn at home to Valencia in the knockout stages, where a controversial penalty decision during normal time gave way to the tension and drama of a shootout that might have done for many a team of this tender age. The Blues stuck five out of five spot kicks away to move on to host Ajax, with Viveash abundantly proud of his charges following a 1-0 win:
“I do like this group being talked about because they’re young, they have a vibrancy, they play in a different way, we’re seeing a few more potential stars emerge and isn’t that what it’s about? It’s a competition to see the best and what we’ve got to offer, and you saw all the different characteristics that you need to be a professional footballer.”
If he was pleased then, the Semi Final thumping of Anderlecht and the tenacious, battling triumph over Paris Saint-Germain in a Final that they weren’t actually favourites for will have delighted him. It was a complete team effort, from Fikayo Tomori’s opener to Brad Collins’ penalty save and Kasey Palmer’s winner played in so effortlessly by the perpetually under-rated Mukhtar Ali, an ever-present in both runs.
The third Youth Cup came rather more easily by comparison. There were no last-minute comebacks, no second leg turnarounds and almost no drama in a ruthlessly efficient path to glory. Huddersfield (6-1) and Manchester United (5-1) were shrugged off in business-like fashion before a more challenging affair saw them escape unscathed from a trip to AFC Wimbledon, who gave them a scare they used as motivation not to rest on their laurels the rest of the way.
Reading and Blackburn were no match in the Quarter and Semi Finals and even Manchester City, in a repeat of the 2014-15 Final, were made to look ordinary in a 4-2 aggregate win with Tomori again on the scoresheet, this time joined by the irrepressible Tammy Abraham and the dynamic Dujon Sterling.
Abraham only returned to Under-18 level for his final Youth Cup campaign and signed off with seven goals in his seven appearances, but he was more than that to this side. He was their everyman in attack, their influential leader with or without the captain’s armband and their talisman at every turn. Sterling, still an Under-16, exploded onto the scene with a goal against Huddersfield, a match-winning assist against Reading, and all-action displays in attack and defence against Blackburn, Manchester City and PSG, scoring as a winger against the first two and holding his own against a man four years older against the French champions.
He and Mason Mount, who too forced his way into the reckoning after starting the season lower on the depth chart, showed the value and strength of work being done by Edwards and assistant Jody Morris in the Under-18 league campaign on a Saturday morning. Those matches often take a back seat to the more prestigious competitions but, for the second year running, Chelsea won the Southern Section at a canter and, were it not for three end-of-season games where several Under-16s were used, they might have added a third trophy to their bulging silverware cabinet.
The likes of Ruben Sammut, Isaac Christie-Davies and Charlie Wakefield led the way and were joined by first-years Jacob Maddox, Trevoh Chalobah, Iké Ugbo and Josh Grant in progressing towards the bigger stage as the year went on. Tat in turn meant Luke McCormick, Harvey St Clair, Richard Nartey and Cole Dasilva took on more responsibility and those Under-16s – your George McEachrans, Martell Taylor-Crossdales and Marc Guehis – took fledgling steps towards doing that themselves next season.
The academy at its best works as a well-oiled machine sending players up the ladder just before they’re ready and with just enough of a challenge in them to keep asking questions of their development. That extends to the coaching staff too as Joe Edwards takes a year away from day-to-day life at Cobham to complete his UEFA Pro Licence, allowing Morris to take charge with former academy scholar Ed Brand assisting, and more former Blues are on the way with Jon Harley and Tore Andre Flo coaching the Under-14s and Under-15s.
They all know that theirs is just a small step on the road to the top, but they’re doing it better than any other club right now. They would dearly love for their senior counterparts to seize on the positive momentum, and strike while the iron is hot in order to make the most of their exceptional produce, but they also know the realities of the situation. Either way, they’re already taking action towards maintaining their place as the standard-bearer in academy football and will go into 2016-17 expecting to do it all over again.