Life over the last twelve months has been a world away from ‘normal’ for everyone but, for 15- and 16-year-old academy footballers, things turning upside down at a crucial time in their lives is undoubtedly an unwelcome stress and a challenge the likes of which they will scarcely have faced before. They experienced a two-month absence in their football games programme during a school year where much of their work – approaching GSCE examinations no less – was forced to become remote, all the while striving to secure a scholarship and/or a professional contract at Chelsea Football Club.
Once again, we remind ourselves that these are perhaps the privileged few compared to millions around the world struggling under the strain of the pandemic, but that privilege doesn’t preclude any one person from finding the going tough or suffering setbacks. That’s part of life for all of us and, for the 10 boys who have penned scholarship agreements with the club this summer, and for those who have moved on to continue their careers elsewhere, the journey continues, and they will ultimately be stronger for the experiences of the last year.
The incoming players join Ed Brand’s Under-18 squad as they look to return to the summit of the English youth game after a 2020-21 campaign in which they found themselves on the losing side of some fine margins and finished without a trophy for the third season in a row.
Please welcome the Class of 2021. Each player’s name leads to their profile on our wiki at www.thechels.info.
Leo Castledine, Midfielder
Signed from Wimbledon at the end of his Under-15 season, attacking midfielder Leo combines the rugged aggression of a box-to-box midfielder with the cultured technique and goalscoring instincts of a modern day goalscorer. In demand from top clubs throughout his teens, Chelsea swooped shortly after he made his England Under-15 debut, and it wasn’t long before he stepped into the Under-18 fold a year early. A natural leader, his father Stewart also played for Wimbledon in the Premier League during the 1990s.
Louis Flower, Forward
Versatile forward Louis joined from Cambridge United during his Under-13 season, following a pathway forged by Marcel Lewis and Dion Rankine in previous years. Nominally a number nine with the build and instincts to play through the middle, he can also assume a wide attacking role and uses the channels between full-back and centre-back to his advantage.
Billy Gee, Midfielder
An England Under-15 team-mate of Castledine’s, Billy joined Chelsea as an Under-8 and also plays mostly as a midfielder, but in a deeper role as more of an orchestrator, and has occasionally featured in a three-man central defence as a sweeper-type operator. Tall, upright and elegant in his distribution, he bears many of the same hallmarks as academy midfielders that have gone before him.
Lewis Hall, Midfielder
A versatile left-footed midfielder, Lewis favours playing in a central or more attacking role, but in his ten appearances for the Under-18s last season, he also saw time as a left-wing back to help the team out in a position of need. In that sense he compares in some ways to Harvey Vale; they share similar body types and skill sets, with Hall perhaps more of a natural 8 than Vale, who does his best work in and around the opposition’s penalty area.
Brodi Hughes, Defender
The only central defender in the group, Brodi has been earmarked for great things for some time, and it’s easy to see why when watching him. Capable of playing in any centre-back role in either a back three or a flat back four, he’s been a regular in every England age group and made eight appearances for Brand’s youth team as a schoolboy last season. With a well-developed physique and a confidence on the ball, he bears more of a resemblance to a John Terry-type defender than most academy products that have preceded him and, while that comparison may lead to great expectations, he’s a young player with a bright future ahead of him.
Tudor Mendel-Idowu, Midfielder
A left-footed midfield schemer who can play centrally or further wide, he comes from a family of high achievers and was not one of those involved with the club’s education programme at Glyn School, instead finishing a King’s Scholarship at Eton College. The England Under-15 international may come along a little later than others in this group, having not been a part of the group of schoolboys spending their days at Cobham, but he has plenty of ability to harness.
Richard Olise, Wide Player
Reading’s Michael Olise has been one of the outstanding young players in English football in the last 18 months, and his younger brother Richard will hope to follow in his footsteps in the near future. While former blue Michael is a left-footed attacking type, Richard plays his best football on the right side, most often as a wing-back, a role that has seen the likes of Dujon Sterling, Reece James, Tariq Lamptey and Tino Livramento go on to stardom. If Richard can follow in their illustrious foosteps, he’ll be doing very well.
Sam Rak-Sakyi, Midfielder
Another player with an older brother who came through the Cobham ranks, Sam follows in the footsteps of Crystal Palace’s Jesuran Rak-Sakyi, who left the Blues at 16 and is now on the fringes of the first-team squad at Selhurst Park. While the senior of the pair is a winger, Sam does his work in the middle of the pitch, tenaciously winning possession, covering ground and using the ball intelligently to construct attacks.
Zain Silcott, Wide Player
Over on the other flank is Zain Silcott(-Duberry), who joined the academy from Norwich City during his Under-13 season and can already claim having represented both England and Montserrat at youth level among his achievements. Tall, skilful and with a high level of individual confidence, he likes to attack coming in off the left whether as a wing-back or a more advanced attacker, and will be looking to refine the rest of his game in the months ahead.
Ronnie Stutter, Forward
Ronnie joined Chelsea in the summer of 2019 from West Ham United as one of the most sought-after young forwards in England, and has gone on to show exactly why in his two seasons with the Blues since. A livewire with pace and smart movement combined with a clinical coolness in front of goal, he captained England’s Under-16s this season and scored his first youth team goal away to West Bromwich Albion in the early spring.
While not a scholar until next summer, goalkeeper Ted Curd is expected to be a big part of the Under-18 team this season after breaking into the squad as an Under-15 midway through the year and going on to establish himself as first choice, making more appearances than any other stopper. Circumstances helped him get there, but his performances kept him there, and he’ll join second-years Prince Adegoke and Sami Tlemcani in contesting the number one job.
Fellow Under-16s Ato Ampah, Harrison Murray-Campbell, Michael Golding, Tyrique George and Donnell McNeilly have all caught the eye for club and/or country in recent years and can be expected to be first in line to earn chances to step up and play as the academy always looks to push through the best and brightest of the next generation early on.
Best wishes also go to those departing the academy and continuing their careers elsewhere; Amani Richards (Arsenal), Finley Munroe (Aston Villa), Dubem Eze (Derby County), Carlos Richards (TBC), Filip Lissah, Zane Myers, David Roberts and Kyrell Wilson (all Swansea).
English youth football has entered an even more competitive era in the post-Brexit transfer world where clubs can no longer recruit from overseas with the same freedoms as before, while the Category One ranks continue to swell with the arrivals of Birmingham City and Nottingham Forest this summer. That competitiveness is reflected in a recent changing of the guard; Chelsea haven’t won the domestic Under-18 South title in three seasons and are without an FA Youth Cup crown for the same length of time. The work to get back to the summit begins now.