It’s been three months since everything shut down. Ordinarily a thriving, energetic hub of promise, innovation and teamwork, Chelsea’s Cobham training ground has been reduced to a skeleton operation where the first team are only just getting back to business, but for the academy, everything has changed. How do you run a youth development system remotely?
Well, you adapt. You find a way, and you return to your principles. For Chelsea, their six-point vision decrees that they are Here To Win, Be Brave, Do The Right Thing, Play Your Part and Be Proud to be Chelsea while recognising that there are Many Teams but One Club, and each of those pillars have not only been apparent during lockdown, but have provided the foundation for ensuring the academy continues to thrive. You don’t have to look very far for evidence of these principles in practice in the wider club either; from accommodation and meals for care workers to the close work with Refuge and so much more, they have been front and centre in the community at such a hard time for so many.
At the very highest level on the pitch, a small group of Development Squad players have been involved with Frank Lampard’s first-team squad, while Under-18 manager Ed Brand has also joined the senior coaching staff. Tino Anjorin (with a new five-year contract), Henry Lawrence, Karlo Žiger, Lewis Bate and Armando Broja are part of the ‘bubble’ allowed to go back to work properly, and will make up the wider group available for selection as the Premier League’s Project Restart gets closer to kicking off.
With nine substitutes now allowed on the bench and as many as five able to be used, a hectic six-week schedule might allow for more opportunities than before, and there are opportunities to be grabbed with both hands by this quintet. Broja and Anjorin made their Premier League debuts last time out against Everton and will hope to build on them, while Lawrence and Bate could take even bigger strides in a season that has seen them stand out from the pack on more than one occasion.
It’s also a challenging time of year not just for other youngsters at Chelsea, but players up and down the country who are approaching the end of their contracts. Players formally come to the end of their contracts on June 30th but, at such an uncertain time and with personal freedoms still somewhat limited, the chance to trial or negotiate that next contract at another club simply won’t be there for the vast majority. The Blues have extended the offer of a monthly rolling professional contract to all scholars who were due to leave the club this month, part of what is arguably the best aftercare programme in the country, and they will continue to make sure that those who are heading for pastures new are given the very best chance of continuing in the game.
At the other end of the scale, the annual recruitment drive to sign the next batch of future stars at Under-9 level had several more layers of complication added to it. Despite media reports to the contrary, Chelsea adhered to all relevant government guidance in securing their 2020 newcomers, delivering paperwork by post ahead of time (the Premier League does not have a digital system for such academy contracts), and collecting them at a safe social distance. There might not have been a welcome night at Stamford Bridge for them like so many of their predecessors had, but rest assured there will be a make-up event when society is in a place where it can happen safely and enjoyably.
Players from the very youngest age groups up to Under-15 level missed out on a host of end-of-season tournaments across Europe; tournaments that not only help to instil that winning mentality, but shape individual development and growth. From Edinburgh to Bristol, from Gent to Majorca and as far as Tenerife and Izmir, competitions were cancelled, but players and staff from across the academy used it as an opportunity to undertake a different sort of challenge altogether. Their 12,345km Over Land and Sea challenge tasked them with covering the equivalent distance of the cancelled games programme by collectively walking, running or cycling over a two-week period to raise money for the Chelsea Foundation to help communities affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
They succeeded in their goals and have so far raised more than £11,000, a tremendous effort and achievement, and you can continue to donate here: https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/overlandandsea
For the Under-18s and the Development Squad, a curtailed season meant no PL2 title, no Under-18 League title challenge, and their pursuit of a record-equalling tenth FA Youth Cup paused with a decision yet to be made on how the competition will be concluded. They, like millions of others, have been working from home since March, guided by a staff that have delivered live daily group workouts and technical sessions using social media platforms and conferencing facilities, honed dedicated individual plans and challenges and pushed every player to find a way to get things done no matter the circumstances. The delivery methods may have changed but the work has continued unabated in keeping everyone together from afar.
Players are now progressing through their off-season regimen with the academy officially on holiday for June, while preparations are being made for the 2020-21 season to officially begin in early July. More than a dozen new youth team scholars are expected to officially put pen to paper, and pre-season will get underway in whatever way possible, although it will inevitably look rather different in places. As the last few months have shown, though, the pursuit of excellence stops for nothing.