On Armando Broja and Development

Exactly one year before Armando Broja made his Chelsea first-team debut against Everton, he was a second-half substitute for a toiling Under-18 team heading for a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal, who were about to end the academy’s four-year reign as South section champions.

Far from showing glimpses of the potential that would see him become one of the club’s twenty-five youngest debutants, he was so far off the radar that people simply weren’t talking about him. He scored just two goals in a campaign that saw him play second fiddle to George Nunn, newly-signed from Crewe Alexandra, and he was just as often used on the right of an attacking midfield as he was in the centre forward’s number nine role. More than one regular academy watcher, with connections in the game, expressed surprise that he’d earned a scholarship in the spring of 2018, and his slow start certainly appeared to justify that opinion.

So just how has he become a 20-goal scorer this season, an Albanian Under-21 international who figures to be pushing hard for a full international call-up, and a prospect good enough to end up in Frank Lampard’s plans while earning the adulation of a Stamford Bridge crowd delighted to see youth finally given its head this season?

Development is not linear. Just because Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi and everyone else were coming along leaps and bounds before they were even old enough to go university doesn’t mean that everyone who falls short of that remarkable progress is any less of a talent. Everyone has their own story to tell and finds their own path to success, whatever form that ends up taking, in whatever walk of life they end up finding it in.

Chelsea run an expansive and successful in-house education programme in collaboration with Glyn School, a local secondary comprehensive. Select players aged 13 and upwards (from Year 9 in English schools) are offered the chance to leave their educational establishment and, for all intents and purposes, become full-time academy footballers. It’s a gesture typically offered to the club’s best and brightest whereby, instead of continuing with the ‘day release’ system that sees a young footballer split his week between school and Cobham, he instead spends every day at the academy, with a balanced workload of football and scholastic activity. Not everyone offered accepts, for they may prefer to stay put in good schools, but most of them do.

Needless to say, it gives those players a head-start when they officially finish formal education and begin their scholarships in the season in which they turn 17. They’ve lived that life for a while, they’ve make good progress on the pitch and, if they’ve done particularly well, they might have already outgrown youth team football. That was the case for Hudson-Odoi, it was pretty much the same for Tino Anjorin – who made his Premier League debut in the same match as Broja – and a similar story can be told up and down the country.

Broja was not one of the players who went through that system. In fact, it was only Anjorin and Marcel Lewis who did so in a group generally viewed as being a rare below-par intake among a succession of outstanding scholars at Chelsea. Subsequently he, and a number of other players, suddenly had to come to terms with life as a full-time academy player, leaving home and lodging with a foster family near to the training ground, and competing for a professional contract.

Lots of players get that built in to their scholarship offer to trigger on their 17th birthday these days so, for those that are not extended that courtesy, there’s uncertainty straight off the bat. If it sounds like a lot to deal with, put yourself in the shoes of the 16 year-old you, and try to imagine the scale of the challenge ahead of you at one of the world’s leading institutions at what they do.

Not that they’re looking for sympathy or to be treated with kiddie gloves; this is the dream, and they’ve already sacrificed plenty to get this far, but those are some of the realities Broja was facing just under two years ago, and goes some way to explaining why you wouldn’t have seen his name on any ‘hot prospect’ lists at the end of last season. Then, gradually, things began to fall into place for him, and he grabbed each and every opportunity with both hands.

Born just ten days into the school and academy year (September 10th), he was blessed with the advantage of being older and more physically developed than his peers throughout junior football, but as 2018-19 ended and 2019-20 approached, you started to look at him more as Broja the man than Broja the boy. Always a big striker, he was now starting to find the aggressive mentality to go along with the towering stature. Born in Slough to Albanian parents, a youth-age international debut came his way in March 2019 and, with five goals in four caps against Kosovo and North Macedonia, he earned a quick promotion to the Under-21s, where he scored three times in two matches against a youthful Welsh outfit.

At a time when he was clearly behind Nunn in the Chelsea pecking order, his Albanian adventure had provided a timely boost, with four times as many goals as he’d scored in his club season, and so he came back for pre-season at Chelsea with all the confidence in the world. The academy often begins its summer schedule with the majority of players shifting up the age groups to account for talents travelling with the first team or who have international commitments, so Broja joined a Development Squad under the stewardship of Andy Myers, his Under-18 coach from the previous season. Daishawn Redan’s departure to Hertha BSC opened the door a little further, and goals against Portimonense, Swansea and Newport County, with a youth team hat-trick against Leeds thrown in for good measure, meant that he’d scored fourteen goals ahead of the big 19-20 kick-off, so that when he took to the pitch away to Arsenal again five months after his last outing, a new story was about to begin.

His brace on the opening day against the Gunners was followed up with two more at home to West Ham, and he hasn’t looked back since. This rather long-winded tale is to demonstrate that these things take time; it isn’t easy to find your way in this sport, it’s harder at Chelsea when you follow in the footsteps of so many who were so good while still so young, and that when writing off the academy’s class of 2018 for being the ones that didn’t win the FA Youth Cup after back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to back triumphs, you were prematurely judging Anjorin, Broja, Ian Maatsen and a host of others who remain well-positioned to bring the trophy back home when football eventually resumes.

Now, of course, there’s a clamour for his ascent to continue at speed. Fans are falling over themselves to produce compilation videos, his social media following has exploded, and he’s being talked of as the ‘next one off the production line’. And he might well be but, for as much as it was unfair to write him off a year ago, it might still be premature to anoint him now, and that’s the whole point. This is his journey and, while the prospect of a first-team debut might have seemed fanciful even as recently as Christmas, the fates have conspired to lend him an injury-assisted leg up, but you can hardly argue that he hasn’t worked hard to put himself in the best position he possibly could.

Broja eventually signed that professional contract earlier this year and outlined his targets for the future to continue developing with the Under-23s, perhaps then going out on loan, before returning ‘in a few years when the manager thinks I’m ready’ for a shot at a proper breakthrough. Already, he might be further along that he dared to dream of being at this stage, and there’s a learning point there too. You can make all the progress in the world but, if the first-team manager isn’t interested, it doesn’t matter. A succession of previous Chelsea managers have shown as much, making it all the more important for the current generation that Lampard is where he is, and that he’s surrounded himself with the likes of Jody Morris and Joe Edwards.

Anjorin recently described the experience of training with the seniors as having “that academy feeling…it doesn’t feel like a first team and academy, it feels like one club.” Too many players have fallen by the wayside in the last decade precisely because that wasn’t the case and, while the final grade on this season is yet to be issued, there has been enough value in what Lampard et al have done on the youth side of things for his arrival to be fully vindicated already.

It means that you can look around the current crop of Under-18s, from top to bottom, and not necessarily know who’s next. It means that some of the less-heralded names on the ‘other side of the road’ at Cobham are in with just as much of a chance as anyone else. Broja’s ascent will undoubtedly have surprised many at the club, but it will have been unlikely to shock them, for they know the quality of their work permeates deep through the system and that hard work will be rewarded eventually.