The Academy Decade: Coaching Them Up

When Frank Lampard unveiled his backroom team at Chelsea in July, it wasn’t quite the culmination of a generation’s work at the club’s Cobham academy, but it certainly felt like it. For, as much as a youth development programme is primarily about producing talent on the pitch, the Blues have been especially prolific in helping to bring through the coaching talent of tomorrow as well as the playing.

Jody Morris, Joe Edwards, Eddie Newton, Chris Jones, Hilário and James Russell were all appointed to senior roles under Lampard, and all cut their teeth at the club working under Neil Bath in the academy. Morris and Newton made the same journey as players before returning to their roots to work with the next crop, while Edwards and Russell were academy youngsters who didn’t quite have the senior career they might have wanted (although Russell served a number of non-league clubs well), and started out on the coaching pathway in their early 20s. Jones worked his way up the ladder on the fitness and conditioning side of things (while also making two Reserve team appearances!), and Hilário joined the ranks of those who transferred into the London club from abroad, but became a blue for life thereafter.

Their respective journeys perfectly demonstrate Bath’s approach to staffing. In having a balance of academy graduates returning after a long playing career, young talents who turned to coaching rather than playing, and headhunting the most talented staff from elsewhere to complete the picture, he has cultivated an environment that challenges everyone to be the very best at what they do, but ensures that the essence of Chelsea remains at the heart of their work.

For much of the last decade, you could have made a convincing argument that the academy has produced more high-quality non-players than it has players. Brendan Rodgers, Paul Clement and Steve Clarke all honed their skills under Bath before making waves at the very highest levels of the club and international game, and there’s been plenty more where that came from. When Steve Holland was named Reserve team manager ten years ago, he arrived off the back of a disappointing spell as Crewe manager. After rising through the ranks as a capable and trustworthy deputy to a slew of itinerant Chelsea first-team managers, he settled into a role in the same capacity to Gareth Southgate with the England Under-21 team, and is now preparing for Euro 2020 at senior level after taking on the Three Lions post full-time in 2017.

A casual glance back at the staffing lists in annual club yearbooks is instructive in the way others have ‘crossed the road’ at Cobham, just like the players they worked with. Eva Carneiro, Steve Hughes, David Porter and Glen Driscoll all rose through the medical ranks, with Driscoll now a key member of Rodgers’ backroom team at Leicester after going with him to Swansea, Liverpool and Celtic. Jo Clubb, meanwhile, started in applied sports science at Chelsea and has since influenced both the Buffalo Bills and Sabres in the NFL and NHL respectively.

The late, great Dermot Drummy didn’t get to work at Stamford Bridge, but did fly the nest and settle into senior management at Crawley, while Adi Viveash is an astute and respected football mind currently working at Coventry after spending a remarkably successful decade with Chelsea’s youth teams. Michael Beale is now at Rangers via Liverpool and Sao Paulo, and the challenge for Andy Myers, Jon Harley, Ed Brand and James Simmonds is to raise the bar as they seek to emulate their predecessors.

Myers is the academy’s most recent UEFA Pro Coaching Licence graduate, and Chelsea make a key point of career advancement not just for coaches and medical staff, but for everyone in the building. They also welcome former Blues back with open arms to set them on their way as they make the transition from playing, so be it Tore Andre Flo, Ashley Cole, Joe Cole, Tom Howard, Sam Hurrell, George Cole, Jack Saville, Harry Worley or anyone else who has crossed the white line with the lion rampant on their chests, Bath’s door is always open.

When Morris left Bristol City in 2013 as a 34 year-old at a crossroads in his career, he came home. Ten years after leaving Chelsea for Leeds in a move he has since expressed some regret about, he was back in blue after being invited to work with the Under-21 squad by Bath. After telling Sam Wallace of The Independent that “one thing I will always say is I know football. I am a good team-mate. I can play the game, I understand the game and coaching is definitely something I know and I will be good at”, he led the way for historic success at Under-18 level, and now sits in the first-team dugout alongside his long-time friend Lampard, in the stadium that he grew up less than a mile from.

Whether it’s his story that resonates most with you, Edwards’ 20-year association with the academy, or anyone else’s path to success, it’s important to reflect on the people who make it all happen behind the scenes. As Bath himself put it in 2016, “if we’re going to develop top-class players, the way we develop staff is fundamental to this, so we have a really thorough plan in terms of coach development.”

The 2010s have seen Chelsea scale new heights in academy football, and the decade comes to a close with the likes of Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Reece James starring for club and country. None of that would have been possible were it not for the staff guiding the way, and they’ve been just as impressive themselves.