Academy Debutants – Who’s Next?

When Armando Broja entered the field of play at Stamford Bridge towards the end of Chelsea’s handsome 4-0 win over Everton a fortnight ago, he became the eighth academy debutant of Frank Lampard’s maiden season in charge.

The Albania Under-21 international followed in the footsteps of Mason Mount, Reece James, Billy Gilmour, Tino Anjorin, Ian Maatsen, Marc Guehi and Tariq Lamptey in what has been a record-breaking campaign for academy debutants. No other Chelsea manager in history has introduced as many youth team players to the first-team environment for the first time and, naturally, it’s left many people wondering, ‘Who’s next?’

That is, of course, assuming the 2019-20 season ever resumes, amid the growing public health crisis surrounding the COVID-19 coronavirus. Football is on lockdown across much of the world but, for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume things are resumed in the next few months. Who deserves to be next? Who’s in line to take the next steps in their careers?

The leading candidate would surely be Jamie Cumming; the 20 year-old has served as third-choice goalkeeper to Kepa Arrizabalaga and Willy Caballero this term, routinely training with the first-team squad, while making eleven appearances for the Development Squad along the way. At a time when many Chelsea fans have less than full confidence in their senior stoppers, there have already been calls for Lampard to have a look at Cumming, but the most likely opportunity for that to happen this season would be towards the end of the fixture list, perhaps a league match with nothing riding on it; a less pressurised environment for him to take his bow in rather than in the midst of the race to qualify for the Champions League.

The outfield options in the Development Squad are less obvious by comparison, but still deserving to various degrees. A year ago, Luke McCormick would have been squarely in line to feature under a Lampard-esque manager, after leading both the Under-23s and the UEFA Youth League team supremely well despite an injury-riddled campaign. Now back at Cobham after a disappointing stay with Shrewsbury Town in the first half of the season, he’s no less a player twelve months on, but it might be hard to justify a debut for a player who struggled to break through on loan in League One. That being said, form is temporary while class is permanent, and McCormick would have few better advocates for his ability than first-team coaches Jody Morris and Joe Edwards.

The rest of the Development Squad continues to grow younger and less experienced by the week; the January departures of Clinton Mola (permanently to Stuttgart), Charlie Brown and George McEachran (loans) removed three players who were well-positioned to take advantage of the sort of situations that allowed Anjorin and Broja to step up, and the current squad – despite being unbeaten through 18 league matches – aren’t quite there just yet. Yet Lampard has repeatedly shown confidence in the next man up, and so it’s entirely conceivable that someone like Henry Lawrence, Tariq Uwakwe or Thierno Ballo gets the call.

Lawrence has been one of the players of the season at academy level; playing just about anywhere he’s been asked to, he provides a confident base level of performance and is ultra-reliable in every phase of play, the perfect sort of player to add to a squad. Uwakwe has shrugged off a mid-season injury absence to inject an attacking spark back into the Dev Squad and, as a left-footed forward option, is something the first-team environment sorely lacks right now, and Ballo has a playing style mature beyond his tender 18 years, a willing and hard worker who makes good runs off the ball and is excellent at leading the attacking press game.

The FA Youth Cup team has often been a great source of tapping into the next generation, with every single one of this season’s debutants having won the trophy during the Blues’ five successive triumphs. The current vintage await Manchester United in the Semi Finals of this season’s competition, and so it would be unwise to rule out first-year standouts Lewis Bate, Valentino Livramento and Xavier Simons from cameo appearances. Their collective journeys are only just beginning, but each has shown the capacity to step up and play well at a higher level despite only just turning 17, and they have all the potential in the world. Levi Colwill, an age-group contemporary of theirs, warrants mentioning too, but is currently sidelined with a knee cartilage injury suffered in the Quarter Final win against Millwall.

If the season is cancelled prematurely, or if none of the above make a breakthrough in what’s left of the 19-20 season, then the Loan Army has one candidate head and shoulders above the rest. Conor Gallagher’s explosive start to life in the adult game at Charlton Athletic earned him a move to a less volatile environment at Swansea City, and he continues to trend in the right direction as one of the best Under-21 midfielders in the domestic game. Elsewhere, Nathan Baxter and Trevoh Chalobah have made solid and mostly impressive progress without breaking down the door so far, but certainly have it in them to do so before much longer, while Richard Nartey and Juan Castillo are longer shots with both facing uncertain immediate futures; Nartey’s contract is set to expire in the summer, while Ajax will likely use their option to make Castillo’s temporary stay a permanent one.

There might not be another season where as many players make their debut as this one; after all, it took more than 50 years for a Chelsea manager to break Ted Drake’s record, but with no shortage of talent coming through the academy ranks, and with Lampard in place, everything and anything is suddenly possible.