Time. A valuable commodity, a great healer, all powerful. Whatever way you look at it, time is as much of an influence over academy football as anything else and, as Chelsea kicked off their new Under-18 season with a 2-1 win at Arsenal, it came into focus once again.
Five months ago, Andy Myers’ team essentially yielded their four-year stranglehold on the Under-18 South league title by losing 3-0 on the same pitch, going down to a much stronger, much better and much more experienced team that were head and shoulders ahead of their competition from August to April.
Then, the Blues were a pale imitation of their successful predecessors, scarcely registering a scoring blow, and coming no closer to scoring than when Armando Broja clipped the post late on. It came towards the end of a frustrating campaign for Broja himself, one in which he struggled to hold down a regular starting place, and scored just twice.
What a difference time makes. A prolific summer for Albania’s youth teams carried over into pre-season back at Cobham, and two goals on the opening day of the new league campaign gave his team their first win on Arsenal territory since Jeremie Boga’s hat-trick got the job done back in 2013. Leading the line with maturity and authority, it was a performance that underlined his new-found confidence, and also his seniority, the old head in a team full of newcomers.
Ed Brand, who replaced Myers in charge of the Under-18s this off-season, named seven first-year scholars in his starting eleven, but did so in the knowledge that his new charges had the pedigree to step up to the challenge. They were there when winning the Under-16 Premier League Cup away to the Gunners in April, and they were here again, embarking upon a new journey in the same swaggering style.
Fiercely-strong winds made the game much harder to play in than it should have been, as the ball swirled unpredictably in the air, and as the players were forced to expend considerably more energy to fight their way through the adverse conditions. Chelsea settled the better and took just twelve minutes to break through, Broja springing Arsenal’s high defensive line before steadying himself for a composed finish beyond the reach of goalkeeper Karl-Jakob Hein.
Chances of quality weren’t exactly forthcoming, but the Blues looked secure at the back, only offering small morcels of hope to the hosts, who couldn’t take advantage when they came their way. Sam Greenwood had the best of their first half opportunities, but saw his strike deflected wide by Levi Colwill, who had a strong game on the left of a back three in his debut at this level.
Lewis Bate, a bundle of energy in the midfield at the best of times, tried hard to add his name to the scoresheet without success, before being replaced at half time to allow the more defensively-minded Bashir Humphreys to help protect the lead a little more.
And it worked; Arsenal were restricted to threatening from set pieces for a long time thereafter, but Zane Monlouis was unable to take either of the openings that came his way. Chelsea should have extended their advantage too, though, but neither Myles Peart-Harris nor Broja could find a way through. Thierno Ballo, hard-working on and off the ball along side Peart-Harris behind Broja, almost did the trick in unlocking the defence, but found he had nobody in support to convert his ball across the face of goal.
His team-mates learned from that and made amends with twelve minutes left. Dion Rankine was the provider this time, producing the goods from the other flank, and this time found Broja, who gleefully crashed home his second of the day. Luke Plange came off the bench to pull one back for Arsenal five minutes later to make the ending a little more nervous than Brand and company would have liked, particularly when Ben Cottrell flashed a stoppage-time volley wide of a beaten Bergström, but this was a well-deserved win by any measure.
Last term, they were seen off by Arsenal and Tottenham teams that gave more appearances to second-year players than any other clubs in the league. At the end of the first ninety minutes of the new year, a new story is being written without the same leading characters, and Chelsea are primed to be back in centre stage. They’re not wasting any time.
Arsenal: Hein, Alebiosu, Lopez, Azeez, Monlouis, Ogungbo, Dennis (Butler-Oyedeji 71), Cottrell (c), Matthews (Plange 78), Greenwood, Taylor-Hart
Subs not Used: Sraha, Graczyk, Flaherty
Goal: Plange 83
Chelsea: Bergström, Livramento (Iling 71), Lawrence, Simeu (c), Colwill, Bate (Humphreys 45), Rankine, Simons, Broja, Peart-Harris, Ballo
Subs not Used: McClelland, Askew, Wiggett
Goals: Broja 12, 78