The most tumultuous, unpredictable and challenging season of (many of) our lifetimes has drawn to a close at academy level, and it almost goes without saying that navigating life in general during a global pandemic has been far from easy but running a youth development programme during that time has come with specific challenges that have tested the resolve of staff, players, families and friends more than ever before.
When things were at their worst in England in early 2021, the 9-16 age group programmes were put on temporary hiatus; training and matches were both suspended for more than two months, mirroring the end of the 2019-20 campaign for all age groups, while the older players at Under-18 and Under-23 levels had to adapt to restrictions on time spent in training, at the training ground, travelling to and from matches, culminating in a back-loaded fixture list with more than 60 days between competitive fixtures at the turn of the year.
Nevertheless, Chelsea were in a privileged position in comparison to many around the world, and their work continued in earnest. Andy Myers’ Development Squad were unable to retain the Premier League 2 title they claimed with an unbeaten record in 2019-20, but did rebound well in the second half of the schedule to finish as very respectable runners-up to a record-breaking Manchester City team. Ed Brand’s Under-18s endured a more frustrating time of it however and, while there will be much disappointment with a 7th-placed finish in the South league table and a Fifth Round exit in the FA Youth Cup, there were no shortage of learning opportunities to take into the summer.
The Dev Squad kicked off the 2020-21 season away to Oxford in the EFL Trophy, where they were unable to advance beyond the group stage after being given a tough draw against the U’s, Bristol Rovers and Walsall. With the transfer window open until mid-October in England, four of the starters at the Kassam Stadium that evening plus substitute goalscorer Jon Russell would soon depart on loan, bringing the average age of the team down even more; a familiar story for this team in recent times.
Tino Livramento, Levi Colwill, Lewis Bate and Myles Peart-Harris were all among the top ten most regular starters, while Bryan Fiabema and Harvey Vale featured almost as often when factoring in substitute appearances, and all six of them retained youth team eligibility (with Vale still eligible again next season). The experience was provided by Dynel Simeu, Thierno Ballo, Henry Lawrance, Marcel Lewis, George McEachran and Tino Anjorin – who himself spent so much time with the first team that he was limited to just eleven appearances yet still showcased his exceptional talent in racking up ten goal contributions – and the returning Dujon Sterling added more in 2021 after spending much of the previous twelve months out with illness and injury.
It all meant that the team was rarely consistent from one match to the next, especially in the first third of the campaign when Danny Drinkwater and Baba Rahman spent time with the group having failed to secure loan moves in October, instead being asked to drop down and build their fitness accordingly. Perhaps interestingly, they each played well on an individual level, but the team’s results appeared to suffer more when they were involved, and the consistency that finally returned in the last ten matches of the season did so when the group was able to settle down and find a rhythm both on the team sheet and on the pitch.
Ballo and Peart-Harris tied for the goalscoring lead with seven apiece, but this was a collective effort. Twenty different players found the back of the net at least once, the most in almost 30 years for a Chelsea ‘reserve’ team, and the versatility offered by Livramento, Lawrence, Sterling and George Nunn – who spent some time playing a new left wing-back role – meant Myers was able to shuffle the pack as and when required, losing just once in the last three months of football, and winning four of their last five matches to finish second. Indeed, their 42 points would have been enough to win the PL2 title in the three previous editions of the PL2, but Man City’s incredible run meant nobody else stood a chance.
Still, Chelsea will take plenty of heart from the fact they were one of just two teams not to suffer defeat against the champions, instead sharing a pair of 2-2 draws in which they mounted spirited comebacks after falling behind, and they can look forward to next season with breakthrough talents like Vale, Xavier Mbuyamba and Jude Soonsup-Bell ready and capable of featuring more often. They will say goodbye to a few, as always; Marcel Lewis has signed a three-year deal with Union SG in Belgium (a club owned by and in partnership with Tony Bloom of Brighton), Pierre Ekwah spent a fortnight on trial with West Ham, and rumours continue to swirl about where Simeu may see his future. Of course, Livramento, Colwill, Bate and others will be in high demand in the loan market, and the challenge of continually refreshing the Under-23 squad will be one Myers and his staff are ready for and will relish when the off-season gives way to the pre-season in July.
They’ll welcome several players graduating from Under-18 football when they do; players with a point to prove after the club’s worst youth team campaign in well over a decade. You have to go back to 2008-09 to find a year in which they finished as low in the table without making at least the FA Youth Cup Quarter Finals and, while evaluating matters based solely on results is far too reductive in youth football, this is an academy that places a premium on winning as part of development, and it didn’t come together this term.
Yes, there were Covid-related mitigations aplenty, but every other club had to deal with versions of that themselves, and it was rather curiously the Blues’ form at home that cost them dearest. They won just four of twelve outings at Cobham, losing seven and, in doing so, suffered more reverses in the space of eight months than in the previous five years. Usually a vibrant hive of activity on a weekend, pandemic restrictions kept the academy quiet and empty throughout each matchday this term, with players often limited to just one family member in attendance, using different changing spaces and with limits on congregation, and perhaps that disruption played a part in their dramatic change in fortunes.
Maybe the younger nature of this team played a part too. Brand gave more appearances to schoolboys this season than in any of the previous five, and he did so in part because when the 9-16 programme shut down in February and March, there were a group of players who remained in full-time education at Cobham who were able to train with the Under-18s but not play with their own age groups. They needed minutes on the pitch to continue their development, so the likes of Lewis Hall, Brodi Hughes, Leo Castledine and Ronnie Stutter pushed on, and Under-15 goalkeeper Ted Curd became an unlikely first choice in a troublesome season for Blues stoppers.
Back in July, Prince Adegoke and Kelechi Chibueze penned scholarship agreements, the latter doing so after some doubts about whether he would do so in the absence of a professional contract attached to it. He made just one appearance before moving to Leicester City, who did offer pro terms, while Adegoke suffered a pre-season knee injury that would keep him out for some six months. Forced to act quickly, Sami Tlemcani arrived from Paris FC, but moving countries during a pandemic is far from easy at the best of times, let alone for a 16 year-old, and so they also called upon the recently-released Jake Askew to return on an emergency basis for regular training and a couple of appearances.
When Lucas Bergström also went down injured, joining summer signing Teddy Sharman-Lowe in the treatment room, Ethan Wady was recalled from Dartford but played just one youth team match before focusing on providing the Dev Squad with more options than just Karlo Ziger. With no full-time goalkeeper in the Under-16 ranks, Curd was the next man up, and he equipped himself very well indeed for someone who made his youth team debut just a week after turning 15. He finished the campaign with 9 starts, 2 clean sheets and just 12 goals conceded, playing more games as an Under-15 than anyone since Dominic Solanke ten years earlier.
Soonsup-Bell scored almost all of his team-leading 18 goals before Christmas, while Vale’s 13 goal contributions also saw him moved up to the Development Squad. The creative burden then fell on Joe Haigh, who responded superbly with 14 goal involvements himself but, without a strong supporting cast, the margins between victory and defeat seemed just too fine for the Blues to consistently fight against this time around. Seven of their ten defeats were by a single goal and four of them were decided by goals scored in the last five minutes of matches.
Edwin Andersson, Jimi Tauriainen and Aleksi Heino all joined from overseas and will have experienced the same struggles as Tlemcani in moving to a new home, away from family and friends for long spells, unable to reunite with global travel restrictions in place, and we’ll almost certainly see something closer to their truer selves next season when (fingers crossed) things will be far closer to normal.
When reflecting on the last year, though, it’s clear we’re in a new era for the Under-18s. They haven’t won a Youth Cup since 2018 and they also last won the league title in that season; the curtailed 2019-20 edition might have yielded more success on that front, but they were denied on a points-per-game basis to Fulham, who went on to retain their crown with a 3-0 win at Cobham last Saturday in a performance that showed why getting back on top will be harder than ever for the Blues.
Led by a prolific front three of Mika Biereth, Kieron Bowie and Jay Stansfield, their ability to recruit on a par with anyone else (Bowie came from Raith Rovers, where he had already earned significant first-team playing time, while Stansfield came from Exeter’s strong production line) and to compete across London too (Stefan Parkes, Ollie O’Neill and Matt Dibley-Dias were all picked up when Brentford closed their academy amid fierce competition where every major academy in the capital found themselves a former Bee) meant that Chelsea were no longer able to enjoy the advantage that their finances and stature once afforded them. Aston Villa were remarkably active in the market last summer, spending big both at home and abroad in putting together a squad that has now reached the FA Youth Cup Final, while Brighton will get a fifth year of Premier League money to further invest in an academy that has taken much of what Chelsea have done for the last decade and done their best to imitate it.
Throw in a Crystal Palace team returning to Category One football with a potential ‘golden generation’ that missed out on the title on goal difference (having given Chelsea an early taste of what was to come when they swept them aside en route to winning the Under-15 Floodlit Cup a couple of years before) and the South league has never been as competitive as it is right now. While the North section is increasingly dominated by the big three in the North West (Man City, Man Utd and Liverpool), the Southern section showcased 13 teams that were all capable of winning against anyone on any given weekend, and they often did.
A strong competition will only bring out the best in Chelsea, though, and it’s just as important to retain the perspective that this is an academy that has been the very best in the country for a number of years now. Mason Mount, Reece James, Andreas Christensen, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Billy Gilmour and (maybe?) Tammy Abraham are all set to feature in a Champions League Final at the end of May. Academy graduates are finding success all over the country, all over the continent, on and off the pitch and, despite a disappointing final record in the table this season, there are players in the squad who will go on to enjoy very successful careers. There are good players and coaches working in the younger age groups and, when pre-season gets underway at a sunny Cobham, the promise of a new generation will be front and centre again, as the journey continues.