By the time the academy class of 2011 signed their scholarships and began their journeys to professional football, the Cobham revolution was already well underway. Neil Bath and company had been given a remit to build Europe’s best youth development system in 2005, soon after Roman Abramovich’s arrival at Chelsea, while 2008 saw the opening of the new Academy and Community Building on ‘the other side of the road’ at the club’s expansive new training ground.
The thirteen youngsters who put pen to paper that summer reflected the nature of the beast at that time; it was a neat mix of the best and brightest young local talent sourced at a young age and developed in-house, and then supplemented by strong recruitment from further afield, with Jim Fraser increasingly influential in bringing in quality from abroad. In the near-decade since, the group have also gone on to show why the academy has been so successful ever since; it’s produced international-quality players, capable senior pros and, for those who might not have had the career they expected, a change of course that is already yielding promising results in a different capacity.
Nathan Aké leads the way in every regard. A Dutch Under-17 international upon his arrival from Feyenoord, he wasted little time in getting on with things, racing up the ladder and making his Chelsea debut away to Norwich City less than eighteen months later. He stayed on the fringes of the first team until joining the Loan Army, where stints at Reading and Watford led to a longer spell at Bournemouth, eventually leading to a £20m permanent departure. With more than a dozen Netherlands caps to his name now, he is consistently linked with a return to Stamford Bridge, where he would add much-needed versatility and a capable left foot in a squad largely bereft of southpaw options.
For a long time, it looked like Nathaniel Chalobah, Lewis Baker and John Swift were certainties to be the youngsters to break through the glass ceiling at Stamford Bridge and kick-start the youth revolution. And, to their credit, they deserved the same chance to shine that Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori, Reece James, Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Billy Gilmour have had this season, only they didn’t have a Frank Lampard in their corner. Chalobah had just as impressive a season on loan in the Championship as any of them when he starred for Watford as a 17 year-old, but he was woefully mishandled thereafter, winding up on a meandering series of loans that threatened to sap the life from his career. A permanent return to Watford was then immediately hit by long-term injury, soon after he made his full England debut, and even when he finally got things going again under a manager who gets him in Nigel Pearson, Covid-19 entered the picture to build yet more frustration.
Swift and Baker were tied at the hip for the Under-18s and 21s for so long that it seemed inevitable their paths would be intertwined forever. Baker joined from Luton as a nine year-old while Swift, rejected by Chelsea as a 12 year-old, bounced back and returned at the age of 14 ready to make an impact. They combined for 22 goals and 17 assists from midfield in the Under-21 title-winning campaign of 2013-14, both making their club debuts during that season, but never going on to add to their solitary substitute appearances. Swift eventually left for Reading, where he’s growing into an astute and entertaining creative midfielder, while Baker was largely superb for Vitesse in a two-year loan that led nowhere; Middlesbrough, Leeds and Fortuna Dusseldorf failed to find a way to make the most of his gifts, and he finds himself turning 25 later this month and at just as much of a crossroads now as he was six years ago.
These boys – men now – are familiar to anyone who watches football up and down the country on a regular basis. Everyone else has taken a less heralded road but they have stories to tell too. Walter Figueira’s is more eclectic than most; he joined as an Under-15 from non-league Hampton & Richmond and stood out as much for his hairstyle as his ability – which isn’t a knock on either. Leaving without a professional contract, he packed his bags and went in search of opportunity, knocking on doors at familiar non-league clubs as well as plying his trade in the lower levels of Greek and Portuguese football. A return to domestic shores eventually led to a move to Irish football, impressing at Waterford before joining Derry City this season, where he’s now hitting his stride and really showing what he can do.
Alex Davey did something similar; he got a pro deal at Chelsea, and had a taste of life abroad on loan in Norway, but also found the cut-throat nature of non-league football as unforgiving as many before him did. Cheltenham, Torquay, Boreham Wood and Dagenham & Redbridge all had him for a cup of coffee before he finally hit upon a move he’d been after for a year or two. A trial spell with the Sacramento Republic in the US in 2017 came to nothing, but two years later, he signed with the Hartford Athletic in the USL, a second-tier team managed by Radhi Jaidi on secondment from Southampton. A host of USL teams and players have graduated into MLS and, still only 25 himself, there’s no reason why he can’t do so too.
— Hartford Athletic (@hfdathletic) April 2, 2020
Nortei Nortey is better-known than your average non-league player because of his name but, after several injury-riddled years at Chelsea that put his career in peril, he’s carved out a very respectable path as a central midfielder in England’s fifth tier, having previously spent most of his time at full-back. Welling, Solihull Moors, Dover and Chorley have all felt the benefit of having him in their ranks and, with his quality at this level indisputable now, a Football League run is due.
Samuel Bangura is at Canterbury City while Anjur Osmanovic – a Swedish youngster who forged an early path from the Nordic countries down to sunny Surrey before the likes of Andreas Christensen, Joseph Colley, Bryan Fiabema and others followed suit – pottered around Swedish clubs after returning home in 2014. That leaves us with four boys excelling in other areas; Tom Howard and Ali Gordon have both gone into coaching, with Howard now leading Chelsea’s Under-12s while helping develop future elite coaches as part of the club’s relationship with St Mary’s University, while Gordon – a former England Under-16 international – has worked with the Development Centres while getting his own coaching school up and running. The club continue to give back to those that have come through the doors and it is a clear pillar of their development model to ensure that tomorrow’s coaches have the academy in their blood; from Joe Edwards and Jody Morris to Eddie Newton, Andy Myers, Jon Harley, Ed Brand and James Simmonds, they’ve been there and done it, and the younger age groups are producing coaches for the future just as much as the players.
Incredibly proud to be a part of this group! We were able to make amazing memories and lifelong friends!@NathanAke @lew_baker @Adam_Nditi @JohnSwift8 @chalobah @bangurasamuel_ @davey_alex @Figueira_95 @_nnortey @AliGordz @AOsmanovic10 pic.twitter.com/hOuSnmDKRC
— Tom Howard (@tomhoward78) April 5, 2020
View this post on Instagram
As a young ex professional athlete who played with numerous premier league/ football league players. I know what it’s like to be at the top and then be at the bottom. Now I want to give young players, the opportunity, guidance and wisdom that I believe was lacking massively when I was going through the ranks #mentoring #coaching.
Lastly, Adam Nditi and Ismail Seremba are doing well with non-footballing endeavours; Nditi has a personal trainer business while still turning out part-time for local non-league teams, while three serious knee injuries while playing for Akron and Cal Poly on US soccer scholarships saw Seremba quit football altogether, before settling into his new life with a California-based wellness company. Wherever they go, whatever they do, boys who start life at Chelsea are increasingly successful in all walks of life, and that’s something everyone who’s ever worked with them can be exceptionally proud of.