Developing On and Off The Pitch

Frank Lampard’s youth revolution at Stamford Bridge has been one of the talking points of the now temporarily(?) suspended 2019-20 campaign but, as exciting as the on-pitch development has been, it’s just as fascinating looking at his backroom team.

Chelsea have been consistently successful in developing coaches for the future just as much as they have players; some might indeed argue that they’ve been even more successful in that regard. From Steve Clarke (now Scotland manager) and Steve Holland (England assistant manager) to Brendan Rodgers (Leicester City) and Paul Clement (Champions League winning Assistant Manager at Real Madrid) and many, many more besides making their presence felt not just across football, but in other disciplines and walks of life, Cobham produces winners both on the pitch and in the dugout.

Lampard immediately surrounded himself with trusted counsel in Jody Morris and Joe Edwards, academy coaches who he had long since developed a strong bond with, and which was later reinforced in the academy when he returned to Chelsea to work towards his coaching badges. Their collective presence has made the integration of several youngsters into the senior setup even easier, leading to recent debutant Tino Anjorin remarking that “it doesn’t feel like a first team and an academy, it feels like one club.”

If you peel back the layers more, you begin to see why. Reach beyond Morris and Edwards and you’ll see that almost all of Lampard’s support team have spent time ‘on the other side of the road’ at the club’s Surrey training headquarters. Chris Jones might have spent the last two years with Lampard, in Derby black and white and Chelsea blue, but he cut his teeth as a fitness coach in the academy after joining from Fulham in 2006. Eddie Newton, before departing for Trabzonspor, added more first-team duties to a bow that had already seen him serve as academy coach, mentor, Loan Manager and Champions-League winning Assistant Manager, while Hilário started out with some academy duties when transitioning from his playing career to life after football.

The Portuguese is assisted in his day-to-day goalkeeping work by James Russell, who spent six years playing for the youth team before later returning to coach those same age groups. Still splitting his time between the two strands of men’s football at the club, he’s the latest in a long line of academy staffing graduates. Even outside of the immediate coaching fraternity, you don’t have to look far for connections: Matt Birnie, Will Tullett and Steve Hughes are all key members of the fitness and medical department under Lampard and all spent considerable time in the academy building before making the step up.

So, who’s next? Neil Bath leads an aggressive personal and professional development plan in the academy, encouraging everyone – no matter their role in the operation – to be the best version of themselves that they can be, remarking in 2016 that “It is crucial that we have coaching development plans in place so that our staff can develop. We remain at the forefront of the game with regards to our coaching content…not only do staff complete qualifications like coaching badges, we also encourage them to use mentors as support tools and observe best practices from other sports.”

Andy Myers leads the Development Squad and is already a UEFA Pro Licence holder, supported by another in Eric Ramsey, while former Chelsea defender Jon Harley is his assistant manager. The Under-18s are led by Ed Brand and James Simmonds, former youth team players turned coaches, and the quintet between them serve to exemplify how Bath has gone about constructing his army of educators. By neatly intertwining a mix of academy graduates turned coaches after succeeding in the professional game (Morris, Newton, Myers), former youngsters who turned to coaching in their 20s (Brand, Simmonds, Russell) and bringing in the brightest minds from elsewhere (Ramsey, Holland, Adi Viveash), he’s able to ensure that Chelsea remain ahead of the game while keeping the very essence of the club at the heart of everything they do.

You only have look at the structure of the academy staff from Under-9 through to Under-16 to see how seriously the approach is taken. The latter age group is a stepping-stone into the more scrutinised world of youth team football, FA Youth Cup campaigns and all that comes with it, and it has produced several world-class coaches over the years at Chelsea. Jack Mesure and Andy Ross currently lead this year’s talented squad, serial winners that they are, and are themselves a fine demonstration of the staffing plan in action. Mesure is a well-regarded coach in his early 30s who arrived from Crystal Palace in 2018 after a decade in South London, while Ross is a former Chelsea youth team player himself who has worked throughout the age groups after taking up coaching.

Ian Howell has spent more than a decade in the academy, including a season as Viveash’s Development Squad number two, and now acts as Lead Development Phase coach for the Under-13 to Under-15 age groups. Frank O’Brien and Ashley Cole focus on the older end of that spectrum; the veteran O’Brien taking the newcomer Cole under his wing while working with a squad that became national champions again back in October, while Hassan Sulaiman and James Houghton helped lead the Under-14s to Premier League Tournament success in India last month. Both Sulaiman and Houghton – brother of former youth team captain Jordan – worked in Chelsea’s regional Development Centres which, far from being just a breeding ground for the players of tomorrow, have a clear and purposeful place in opening the door to coach full-time in the academy itself.

It’s not just the Development Centres that produce the goods either; the Blues also run a Foundation based in the local community and a wider international programme, where Andy Ottley and Scott Hastings refined their craft. Cyril Davies, like O’Brien, is an academy lifer – he coached Ruben Loftus-Cheek as a seven year-old – who continues to give so much to the club, making sure the younger generation of teachers are on the right path. The younger age groups are as much of a gateway into a career at the top as anything else and, in former Football Icon contestants Sam Hurrell and Tom Bird and former Under-18 skipper Tom Howard, they show that, as one door closes, many more open. And, when someone like Yves Makalambay finds himself at a career crossroads without a club aged 32, an invitation is extended to step up and help to coach the goalkeepers of tomorrow in the Foundation and younger age groups. The connection forged having been an academy player is a lasting one.

Many coaches have more than one main responsibility; Sam Page, for example, not only leads the Under-12s with Luke Sharps, he’s also a Digital Player Development Coach, a role he describes as “trying to explore that world and see how we can engage with players across all our age groups using innovative technologies.” Having also served as a performance analyst for the Under-18s while working his way up through the pre-academy and Development Centres, having a ‘more you can do’ attitude and “saying yes to lots of opportunities”, in his words, points you in the right direction at Chelsea.

Ben Knight is the lead phase coach for Under-9 and Under-10 level and has seen every single one of this season’s academy graduates join the club at the earliest possible opportunity and go all the way through the system. Whenever a throwback age group photo goes around on social media – and there have been several these past few months – he’s invariably there, and the success those players have had reflect on the exceptional work done in the Foundation phase.

That’s really the beauty of all of this. The academy has key pillars in Bath, Jim Fraser and Darren Grace who make sure that the academy are standard-bearers in coaching and recruitment not just domestically, but in Europe and beyond. As they endure, everyone around them is empowered to get better each and every day, working their way up the ladder just like the players with which they engage, all in the name of aiming to be the next one to ‘make it’. There has never been a better time in Roman Abramovich-era Chelsea to be involved with the academy and there is plenty of quality on the way, whatever way you choose to look at it.