When Chelsea line up against Bradford City at Kingsmeadow on Saturday to kick off their 2022-23 FA Youth Cup campaign, it will have been 1,692 days since they last had their hands on the most prestigious trophy in English development football. To put that into perspective, if you rewind the exact same length of time before that famous 4-0 win at the Emirates Stadium and a fifth successive competition triumph, you find yourself at the start of the 2013-14 season, the campaign that gave birth to that historic run.
Remarkable achievements are remarkable because they don’t happen often. Only two clubs have won five Youth Cups in a row, and they did so sixty years apart. By the end of the 2010s, Chelsea had reached ten finals in thirteen seasons, winning seven of them, and giving new meaning to the word dominance. Andreas Christensen, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount, Trevoh Chalobah, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Conor Gallagher and Reece James all graduated from those victorious outfits to become key members of the first team squad at Stamford Bridge, while dozens more have forged successful high-level careers elsewhere. It’s as close to a ‘golden generation’ as you’ll see in modern club football.
And then it just sort of…stopped. It was going to happen eventually, sure, but it was rather abruptly halted in December 2018 when a Manchester United team led by a striker currently facing police charges single-handedly brought about their demise. They fought their way back to the final a year later, delayed by eight months due to Covid-19, and played at a neutral location in St George’s Park where a late Cole Palmer goal gave Manchester City the victory they had craved so long for against their long-time youth rivals, but it hasn’t been plain sailing since either.
They fell in the Fifth Round in 2021 with barely a whimper in defeat to Everton and, while last season’s run to the Semi Final was dramatic, they needed Extra Time to see off a spirited Watford, an almost unbelievable four-goal comeback in the last twenty minutes away to Liverpool, and they had to graft particularly hard to get past Blackpool at Stamford Bridge. Yes, they were five minutes away from beating Nottingham Forest and setting up a final against Man Utd, but the nature of their eventual collapse to a 3-1 defeat offered a revealing insight into a run that bore little comparison to the swashbuckling supremacy of their predecessors.
Why they’ve found it so hard to bring the cup back to Cobham again isn’t a question that’s easily answered. It’s become easier for the chasing pack to close the gap than it has been for those in front to pull away, and the tighter scope on recruitment enforced by Brexit regulations mean the market is much more competitive than ever before, engendering an atmosphere where nobody and nothing is off limits at any age group, where players move clubs earlier and more often than ever before. Certainly, there has been a drop-off in quality overall, and Chelsea would be the first to admit that, but that will always be the case when the bar has been set by some of the most talented players ever to come through the club’s youth setup. And, still, for a club that positions itself at the top of the academy game and demands success, they will acknowledge that they need to learn the lessons of the last four years and go again to return to the summit.
So, what does this season’s team look like, and can they get it done?
Well, it’ll be a young one. Of the ten second-year players that typically provide experience and stability to their younger team-mates, almost half of them are long-term absentees unlikely to be involved in the early rounds. Ronnie Stutter, Zain Silcott-Duberry, Richard Olise and Billy Gee have missed the season to date but could all play important roles later on in the campaign if things go to plan. However, for now, Ed Brand and his coaching staff will lean heavily on Leo Castledine, Brodi Hughes, Tudor Mendel Idowu, Sam Rak-Sakyi and Louis Flower, who have each performed well at times this season, Castledine perhaps most notably across multiple age groups and several positions, including time spent in an unfamiliar centre-back role.
The tenth second-year player is Lewis Hall, who ordinarily would be considered among the first names on the team sheet and a key player but, as his role grows under Graham Potter, his availability may be restricted – and rightly so – to the requirements of the first team. His performances at Manchester City and Newcastle before the World Cup were outstanding and, when given a chance in his preferred central midfield role against Aston Villa last weekend in Abu Dhabi, he once again showed that he belonged. The Under-18s will miss his quality if he can’t play, but the first team will benefit from his expanded involvement.
All of which means the sixteen first-years and select schoolboys will get their chance to impress, and they have impressed in the league so far this year, sitting fourth in the table after 10 of 24 matches have been played, within a point of Fulham in second, although West Ham have pulled clear of everyone with a 100% winning record to date. Many of the first-years have stepped up admirably in a testing UEFA Youth League group against players two or three years older than them at times and, while they won’t be favourites to win it this season, they have the resolve, versatility, talent and depth to give it a fair shot.
Ted Curd figures to start in goal, now in his third season of action for the Under-18s, while Max Merrick will prove a capable deputy and potential number one if earned or required. Luke Campbell will be called upon should either of them be unavailable, and they’re protected by a defence that should be led by Hughes and supported by a host of promising centre-backs. Travis Akomeah and Harrison Murray-Campbell have both had a strong first half of the season and can play together in a three or four-man defence, as can Hughes, who also can operate at either full or wing-back berth and returns at a good time after recent absences due to injury and illness. Whether Brand uses wing-backs or not will be partly dependent on the opposition, but also on player availability. Josh Acheampong has repeatedly caught the eye on the right, more in a four than a three (where he would be a better fit at right centre-back), and Somto Boniface is a natural fit on the left but, without Silcott-Duberry, Noah Hay (who has been in and out of the treatment room) or Ato Ampah (sidelined since September), the remaining options involve using forwards Tyrique George or Frankie Runham in those roles. While they have both done a job there when called upon, their best attributes are more appropriately utilised as part of an attacking unit. Hall can, of course, play on the left if available for selection.
Rak-Sakyi is the lone true second-year central midfielder – although Castledine can play there – and competition to feature alongside or instead of him will be rife between Michael Golding, Harrison McMahon and Kiano Dyer. Golding has rounded into form at the right time, scoring well for club and country over the past six weeks, while McMahon has been excellent this season in central or more attacking midfield roles, intelligently connecting the play and providing a high level of technical quality in key areas. Both saw midweek EFL Trophy action against Cheltenham and looked as if they belonged. Dyer, an Under-16 like Runham, plays like someone ten years his senior and his terrier-like intensity blends superbly with a patience in possession that saw him shine in the UEFA Youth League group stages as a 15 year-old against U19s and U20s.
Flower and Donnell McNeilly have thrived as do-it-all 9s this season; exerting their physical superiority leading the line and with their backs to goal but working relentlessly out of possession and playing an effective role dropping deep to link the play in the build-up. Both are in goalscoring form and, whoever gets the start, the other one will play an important role coming off the bench in the second half to bully opposing defenders into submission. They too started in defeat to Cheltenham and, with McNeilly forced off through injury early on, his availability for Round Three is doubtful.
They’ll receive able help from Castledine, McMahon, Runham, George, Silcott-Duberry and Mendel-Idowu, the latter of which has quickly garnered quite a reputation in the Chelsea community for his eye-catching style of play, full of flair and creativity and dribbling excitement, and improving consistency and end product. If he can continue to refine that individuality into polished production and combination play, he could be a decisive factor in close-run matches later in the season.
Kaiden Wilson, Reiss Russell-Denny and Chinonso Chibueze have seen their seasons interrupted by injury but, when available, provide game-changing relief in their respective positions; Wilson in central defence, Russell-Denny as a midfield schemer, and Chibueze as a versatile forward who pops up in good areas and is generally a nuisance to play against.
Third Round opponents Bradford City have reached this stage of the competition by beating Morecambe and Chester away from home, the latter on penalties, but as their league campaign is an Under-19 competition, they will miss their more prolific attacking options. Cole Roberts, Jack Wilson and Dylan Youmbi are too old, while they’ve borrowed Man Utd goalkeeper Tom Myles for both ties so far due a shortage at the position. They are a productive academy in their own right and have seen prospects signed by Leeds (Darryl Ombang) and Brighton (Sahil Bashir) in recent years, but when they last met Chelsea in this competition in January 2020, they succumbed to a 5-0 defeat to a side featuring Armando Broja, Tino Livramento and Levi Colwill.
Should Chelsea win, they will travel to either Colchester United or Cambridge United in Round Four in early 2023, but there is a match to be played first, and it’s at Kingsmeadow on Saturday 17th December. Tickets remain available at £5 for adults, £3 for concessions, while the action will be broadcast on club platforms, and updates will be available throughout as usual on Twitter @chelseayouth.