Academy Season Review: Record-Breaking Under-18s

From any angle you look at it, however you frame it, Chelsea’s Under-18s have surpassed any hyberbole or superlative with what they have achieved over the past five years. Five consecutive FA Youth Cups, four consecutive Premier League South titles, two national Premier League titles, and the inaugural Premier League Cup. Record-setting winning streaks, goalscoring totals, clean sheet tallies, an unbeaten home record spanning more than three years; the list goes on.

League titles are a true reflection of the best team over the course of a season; the table never lies. Chelsea have undoubtedly been the nation’s best – if not Europe’s, as three UEFA Youth League Finals and two wins will attest to – in that regard, but cup football can be a bit more unforgiving. Single-legged knockout football is the great equaliser; the stage that allows David to upstage Goliath, the platform upon which legendary upsets are achieved.

In the grand history of the FA Cup, football’s most prestigious and historic competition, only one team has ever recorded four consecutive wins and, with all due respect to the Wanderers of the 1870s, they came in an era that predated codified professional football. In the last hundred years, there have been just five instances of a team even retaining the title. In the women’s game, Arsenal won four in a row in the late-2000s, and there have been three other examples of a team winning back-to-back, and worldwide there have been just 37 instances of a team winning five or more domestic cups in a row. Fewer than one-third of those happened this century, and none of them in a country more prominent than the former Yugoslavia.

Yet Chelsea, under Adi Viveash, Joe Edwards and now Jody Morris, have rampaged their way to five Youth Cups in as many years to equal the standard set by the Busby Babes of Manchester United in the 1950s. They did so losing just twice in forty matches, winning thirty-six of those matches, and looking more and more imperious with each passing year. Their contemporaries simply haven’t been able to keep up; Manchester City lost finals in 2015, 2016 and 2017 before losing to Plymouth in the third round of this season’s edition. Everyone slips up eventually, so why have the Blues been able to brush aside all comers with such supremacy?

Critics will argue that a little money goes a long way, and that Chelsea’s academy is the highest-funded on the continent. It undoubtedly helps, as does getting a head-start on the competition with it being ten years since the Academy and Community Pavilion was formally opened by the late, great Ray Wilkins, but the EPPP era has ensured that all of the top academies are awash with money. The playing field is fairly equal amongst the elite Category One clubs at the very least.

Money does not guarantee success either; Roman Abramovich quickly discovered that at first-team level soon after arriving at the club in 2003, Man City have far from had it all their own way under the CFG, and the Premier League as a whole appears to have no idea what to do with the hundreds of millions received in television and prize money on an annual basis. You have to have a plan, you have to uphold the highest of standards, and you have to bring quality each and every day.

Neil Bath, the Academy Manager at the very top of the tree, and the man responsible for instilling the culture of success at Cobham, perhaps said it best after this year’s Youth Cup triumph at Arsenal, a 7-1 aggregate victory that not only saw the biggest ever away win in a final (4-0), but also saw Chelsea become the first club to concede just a single goal en route to lifting the silverware:

“On your right arm you need really good scouting people, the likes of Jim Fraser (Assistant Academy Manager and head of scouting for ages 9-15) and Darren Grace (Head of Local Recruitment, predominantly ages 9 and under), and then you need really good coaches, the likes of Joe Edwards, Jody Morris, Andy Myers, Ed Brand, and then a really good supporting staff in and around it.”

Those four coaches all share something in common; they each came through the academy system at the club themselves. Morris and Myers made it all the way to the top, Edwards and Brand took a different route and went straight into coaching rather than seeking a professional playing career, and it’s something that has long been at the heart of Bath’s model. Jon Harley, James Simmonds, Andy Ross, Tom Howard, Sam Hurrell and many, many others are working in the younger age groups and will move on up over time, knowing the bar has been raised for them by each of their predecessors, and knowing what’s expected of them when it’s their turn.

Yes, perhaps the academy has more staff than some lower league professional clubs, and yes, there are still issues getting these players through into the first team at Stamford Bridge, but few can argue that the programme Bath runs – a bespoke model that suits the club without quite adhering fully to the Premier League’s prescribed curriculum – hasn’t produced exceptional results on the pitch and in terms of getting players through into senior football. This season alone, Ryan Bertrand, Jack Cork, Dominic Solanke, Nathaniel Chalobah, Tammy Abraham and Ruben Loftus-Cheek received England call-ups, whilst Mason Mount spent the last week training with the group. The country’s finest are calling on Chelsea, even if Chelsea themselves aren’t doing so yet.

What does the future hold though? How much longer can they keep dominating at Under-18 level, and at what point does it become an exercise with diminishing returns? Morris’ boys suffered one meaningful defeat this season when they lost 4-0 to Southampton in October (April’s 3-0 defeat to Tottenham came with a third-string team with the league already won, and with a hectic fixture schedule), and that in itself came whilst five of the squad were away at the Under-17 World Cup.

Outside of those two defeats, they trailed just four times in total in all competitions. They kept twenty-three clean sheets, they conceded goals at a rate of just over one every two matches, and scored more than 100 goals for the fourth season in a row. This, for the most part, is without their very best players; they’ve already graduated to Development Squad football and only return for the Youth Cup. That step up itself is far from a smooth one, as we’ll touch upon in the Under-23 season review, but as the club sends its best 19 year-olds on loan, best 17- and 18-year olds into the PL2, and still reigns supreme with a team full of 15 and 16-year olds, what happens next?

Do the Under-16 team play at Under-18 level and the first-year scholars take on Development Squad roles? Does everyone move up one level and expose themselves to a more challenging level of competition? That in itself already happens at junior age levels, and with great success, but the gap in talent closes as players get older, and it could be that many of Chelsea’s young prospects need that test when they get to scholarship age. Having rarely experienced major setbacks along the way, there is a common argument that many of these young players don’t know how to handle adversity when they struggle to make that leap into the men’s game and, whilst the merits of that argument are debatable, it is at the very least worth taking into consideration when appraising the future and direction of the academy.

On the other hand, there is no uniform solution, and players develop at different rates. For every Callum Hudson-Odoi or Reece James, there’s a Tariq Uwakwe or Conor Gallagher, who needed both years of their scholarship to refine their games and find themselves as footballers. Chelsea have done this better than anyone for ten years now, and they’ve sent dozens of players off into senior and international football. The final hurdle is the first team, and that requires philosophical changes, changes that would ideally involve some of the academy staff themselves.

Steve Clarke, Paul Clement, Steve Holland, Eddie Newton, Eva Carneiro, Chris Jones, Steve Hughes and a handful of others worked in the first-team environment having planted their roots in the academy, but that connection has been conspicuously absent since Holland left to work full-time for England last summer. If Edwards or Morris were approached with the offer of an Assistant Manager role to a Head Coach with not just a mandate to make better use of the academy, but a legitimate interest, they’d more than likely take it and help to open a pipeline that hasn’t been tapped nearly as frequently as hoped.

The good times continue to roll on the academy’s side of the road at Cobham. It’s time to make it count on the other side.