In each of the last three seasons we’ve previewed Chelsea’s FA Youth Cup campaign with something of a proclamation that it was about time the Blues brought the famous trophy back to Cobham once again. Five straight triumphs between 2014 and 2018 set a certain level of expectation and history – the club is the second-most successful in the competition’s history behind Manchester United – that has not been met since those record-breaking antics ended.
Certainly, it is impossible to keep that sort of run going, That’s why it became historic, but the manner in which they’ve exited the Youth Cup in the last few years will have been disappointing to everyone around the academy. In 2020-21 they fell in the Fifth Round to a last-minute Everton winner handed to them by a defensive mistake. A year later they looked to have a real chance of returning to the summit only to collapse late in a Semi Final away to Nottingham Forest, turning a 1-0 advantage with 85 minutes on the clock into a 3-1 defeat.
And then there was last year’s insipid defeat to Cambridge United in the Fourth Round. It was a good U’s team that went on to reach the last eight but, with respect, one the Blues ought to have beaten. It was also coincidentally Ed Brand’s last match in charge of the Under-18s after three and a half years at the helm as he would join Jody Morris at Swindon Town later that same week.
His replacement, Hassan Sulaiman, has overseen a promising and largely positive 2023-24 season so far. With five wins from seven games, they are well-placed in the league, while ensuring safe passage through to the Quarter Finals of both the Under-18 and Under-17 Premier League cup competitions. The team has largely been a settled one, built around a core of half a dozen regulars but, as Sulaiman told the official Chelsea website in previewing this Friday’s Third Round clash with Leicester City, he has a bigger pool of options to work with after a month in which neither his squad nor Mark Robinson’s Under-21s have had regular football.
Luke Campbell has been in goal for seven of the ten games played so far, with Ted Curd on loan at Hashtag United and Kai Crampton almost exclusively on Under-17 duty. Max Merrick has split Dev Squad starts with Ed Brand and it’s his experience playing at higher levels that may see him get the nod for the starting role in this season’s competition, although all four stoppers are highly capable.
Merrick won’t be alone in dropping down from Under-21 level to get involved in the most prestigious youth tournament around; Somto Boniface, Kiano Dyer, Ishé Samuels-Smith and Jimmy-Jay Morgan are all more likely to have been seen on a Kingsmeadow evening than a Cobham morning this season, all are talented England youth internationals and are all reasons why Chelsea will consider themselves among the favourites to challenge for honours.
Academy management have hardly been shy in pushing other talent on to more challenging situations either; Harrison Murray-Campbell, Tyrique George, Michael Golding, Reiss Russell-Denny and Donnell McNeilly have all had a good look in the first half of 23-24 under Robinson, and they’ve all delivered when called upon too. When back on Under-18 duty, there’s a focus and determination to perform to the expected level there too; McNeilly leads the scoring charts with 8 goals in 8 games, George has produced seven goal involvements in as many appearances, as has Russell-Denny with six in six.
Sulaiman will certainly have his work cut out to pick a starting eleven from his vast array of options, but it’s a dream problem for a coach to have, and there are in-form first-years and schoolboys like Ollie Harrison, Frankie Runham, Shaun Wade and Shim Mheuka staking their claim for a place in the side too.
It’s at this point where a projected depth chart graphic might be put together, but the combinations of options are too many to know where to begin. Do you stick with the central defensive partnership between Travis Akomeah and Kaiden Wilson that has been so impressive and push Murray-Campbell to right-back, where he has been an effective contributor since August despite being better centrally? Or do you bring Murray-Campbell inside and start with Josh Acheampong – a quality player himself – on the right? If Samuels-Smith plays is it at left-back or centre-back and who misses out; Somto Boniface or one of the other defenders?
If Dyer and Golding occupy the two central midfield spots, where does Harrison McMahon – pound for pound as good as anyone in Chelsea blue at this level over the last 18 months – fit in? If you pair Dyer and McMahon with Golding further forward at 10, is there room for Russell-Denny? Or Harrison?
McNeilly should lead the line with Morgan and George in support, leaving Mheuka to play the role of super-sub despite surpassing double figures for goals in all competitions for club and country so far and starting more than half of the 18s games. Runham and Wade and Chinonso Chibueze must bide their time for an opportunity if that particular configuration comes to effect, to say nothing of Ato Ampah’s game-changing potential when he returns from injury.
You could, as an example and a thought exercise, put together an eleven comprised exclusively of England internationals from the 2006-born generation that just participated in the FIFA Under-17 World Cup:
Curd; Acheampong, Murray-Campbell, Akomeah, Samuels-Smith; Dyer, Russell-Denny, Golding; Boniface, George, Morgan.
That won’t happen, but it speaks to the high-level quality in contention. Nobody else can put together such a team, not even perennial rivals Man City.
Leicester will be no pushovers; despite being firmly mid-table in the league so far, they too will bring Under-21 regulars back down with them for the best-on-best occasion, including the highly regarded Mirsad Ali, Logan Briggs and Bobby Amartey. Home advantage will help, although Chelsea won 3-0 there in April and will back themselves to do so again with many of the same players involved. Should they return home victorious, they will head to either Everton or Stockport in Round Four. They have everything needed to make another strong run at lifting silverware next spring; the journey starts now.