When Mason Mount stepped on to the Wembley pitch on Saturday afternoon against Bulgaria, he became the eighth Chelsea academy product to make his England debut in the last two years.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham, Jack Cork, Dominic Solanke, Nathaniel Chalobah, Declan Rice and Callum Hudson-Odoi went before him and, in accounting for almost half of the last eighteen overall debutants in that time, the Blues extended an unrivalled recent record. No single club has provided as many newcomers to the national team setup in a similar span of time; Tottenham, Southampton, Man Utd and Liverpool have all flirted with it in the past decade, and have proudly provided regular players from their first-team squads, but no single academy has been as prolific as Neil Bath’s operation.
You have to go back to August 2012, when Ryan Bertrand made his Three Lions bow in Bern against Italy, for the last Blues’ product to make the step up before that, and to Carlton Cole in Seville three years earlier for the next one but, as we approach the end of a remarkably successful academy decade, it’s important to reflect on Cobham’s far-reaching international influence.
The players breaking through now under Gareth Southgate have been mainstays of the England youth system for much of the last five years. In the golden campaign of 2017, when every age group claimed multiple honours, and both the Under-20s and Under-17s were crowned World Champions, there were Chelsea players front and centre. In every single season of the past decade, they have accounted for a higher percentage of age-group call-ups than any other club. The numbers are dizzying: 76 academy players have received England call-ups from Under-16 through to the senior squad since the start of the 2009-10 season.
The FA know what they’re getting when they call up a Chelsea player. Southgate admitted shortly after the Under-20s had won the World Cup in South Korea, with Solanke named the Best Player at the tournament, that “the success of our junior teams owes a big debt to what (Neil) Bath has done at Chelsea”, while Steve Holland is his trusted assistant and carries a strong Stamford Bridge connection with him, having worked in the reserve team before a long and distinguished service under several itinerant first-team managers.
And there’s more to come. Aidy Boothroyd’s new-look England Under-21 team not only calls upon Marc Guehi and Trevoh Chalobah, stalwarts of every age group, but also Eddie Nketiah and Rhian Brewster, who spent their formative years in leafy Surrey, before leaving at 14 making their way up the ladder at Arsenal and Liverpool respectively. Declan Rice, who was released at the same age as Nketiah, has set the example for them to follow, while Guehi and Chalobah were partnered in defence against Turkey on Friday by Jonathan Panzo, who chose to swap Chelsea blue for the red and white of Monaco last summer.
Some of the near eighty-strong crowd who once represented England have gone on to earn full international honours for another country. Ola Aina is a regular for Nigeria, Mukhtar Ali plays for Saudi Arabia, George Saville is one of Northern Ireland’s best midfielders, Aziz Deen Conteh picked up caps for Sierra Leone, while the likes of Patrick Bamford and Kyle Scott are being courted by Ireland and the United States respectively.
Of those players to turn out for other national teams without England connections, you can add Nathan Aké, Jeffrey Bruma and Patrick van Aanholt (all Netherlands), Faiq Bolkiah (Brunei), Jeremie Boga (Ivory Coast), Liam Bridcutt (Scotland), Andreas Christensen (Denmark), Kaby (Guinea-Bissau), Gael Kakuta (DR Congo), Tomas Kalas (Czech Republic), Gökhan Töre (Turkey) and Bertrand Traore (Burkina Faso) to a list that included the likes of Borini and Stoch before them. Truly, in today’s global game, Chelsea continue to leave an imprint in every corner of the world.
In a 2015 interview with The FA, Bath explained that a positive dialogue between club and international stuff was vital to the development of young footballers, and the relationship fostered between people in key positions on either side of the divide has borne fruit for everyone:
“We realise now how many players we’ve got playing for England and we need to make sure – and England need to make sure – that we communicate properly.
“That’s just common sense. We need to get round the table for the benefit of the player, and that’s what we’re doing. It’s a win-win.”
Critics will be quick to remark that half of the recent debutants have made little more than a fleeting appearance on the world stage, and that until you’ve earned ten, twenty or even thirty caps, you’ve not ‘made it’ for your country. That misses the point that this is just the beginning. All roads have led to now; to the 2019 of Frank Lampard’s Chelsea, of a real academy breakthrough in SW6, and to a rising tide of talent that can’t be held back much longer. Rice, Hudson-Odoi and Mount are the three most recent full England graduates, and they all learned their craft under the midweek floodlights of regional development centres set up by the club in London and the South East.
As we look ahead to the 2020s, it’s impossible to consider England’s chances of success in Qatar and beyond without factoring in a Chelsea influence, and that, as much as anything else, could be their defining legacy.