The 2022-23 academy campaign at Chelsea was interesting and largely promising, yet there was a sense of business left unfinished, of meat being left on the bone, and of work still to do. Mark Robinson’s Development Squad challenged long and hard for the PL2 title before falling short in the season’s final weeks, while the Under-18s saw a good start fall away to a tough middle before finishing strong under a change of manager.
The FA Youth Cup and UEFA Youth League challenges were certainly disappointing and ended prematurely, but there were senior debuts to savour for Bashir Humphreys and Omari Hutchinson, recruited to Cobham at different ages and from different pathways but successes each, plus the emergence of Lewis Hall as a first-teamer of some acclaim, the latest successful graduate to go from the Development Centres housing six and seven year olds all the way through to the bright lights of Premier League football.
Of course, the very nature of academy football and youth development lends itself to a cycle of perpetual works in progress, of incompletion and of work still to do, and those motivations remain as strong across the management structure on that side of the road at Cobham as they move into 2023-24. Recruitment has been strong, led not just by Jim Fraser and company in the younger age groups, but through the lens of Neil Bath, Joe Shields and the Director-level collaborative effort that focuses more on the professional age-level competition. Those combined efforts have welcomed England Under-17 international Ishé Samuels-Smith, Portugal Under-21 winger Diego Moreira and versatile former Norwich youngster Alex Matos into the club.
Change isn’t limited to those in and out either; the games programme will look considerably different for the young Blues to the familiar formula that has filled much of their last decade. Premier League 2 has undergone a shake-up that leaves clubs in a ‘Swiss Model’ format; a 26-team league table with fixtures home or away against some but not all of the other Category One clubs, while the combined failure of the men’s first team and the Under-18s to secure qualifying finishes last term means a first UEFA Youth League absence since 2016. To ensure a challenging schedule remains, the Under-21s will return to the Premier League Cup and International Cup respectively for the first time since that same 2016 juncture and will add high-level overseas friendlies where possible to ensure a diverse and fruitful education endures.
Robinson will continue to build and learn from a positive first year at the club, and will oversee the transition from last year’s squad core to what figures to be a much younger group this time around. Dion Rankine, Omari Hutchinson and Charlie Webster all made 20+ starts for him in 22-23 and have already departed on loan, while fellow regulars Mason Burstow and Ben Elliott are expected to join them. Dylan Williams and Zak Sturge are the experienced holdovers who have spent the summer back at this level but moves for either or both are being considered, although Sturge being given the captaincy during the pre-season fixtures suggests he might be sticking around to help lead the younger successors.
That process will begin in goal, where Teddy Sharman-Lowe (Bromley) and Gabriel Slonina (soon to be Eupen) will be playing loan football, and both Eddie Beach and Lucas Bergström will aim to take the next steps in their careers after spells with Chelmsford and Peterborough respectively. Ted Curd and Max Merrick, both 17, have spent the summer trading places between the sticks and seem destined to do so when the action gets underway for real.
Sturge theoretically comprises one-third of an experienced back three – Robinson once again favouring a 3-5-2/3-4-3 hybrid – with Josh Brooking and Brodi Hughes, although Brooking turns 21 in September and could well be another moving on by then. Hughes, who struggled through illness and injury last season, saw an extended run at PL2 level in 2021-22 and is ready for more, be it in central defence or out at wing-back, where he has also played to a high standard. Alfie Gilchrist, stalwart and captain last term and a nominee for PL2 Player of the Season (the only defender shortlisted), has indicated that a strong summer spent with the first team will see him remain at the club until the winter transfer window, which will be a boon for Robinson whenever he’s available.
Ready to challenge for playing time, though, are Samuels-Smith, Harrison Murray-Campbell and Billy Gee. Samuels-Smith is a £4m recruit from Everton who has already played regularly at this level for the Toffees and, while he retains youth team eligibility, is expected to be a regular feature on the left side of the defence at this age group. Murray-Campbell is a second-year scholar who doesn’t turn 17 until late August, yet has been entrusted with the captaincy at times this pre-season and has produced several impressive performances against players much older than him. Gee, who can also play in midfield, has recovered well from a long-term absence that saw him return in March after a year out, and he too has looked assured and authoritative in his friendly appearances.
Hughes and Sturge have also often lined up at wing-back, with minutes also going to Harvey Vale (who will depart on loan), Zain Silcott-Duberry, Alex Matos and Somto Boniface during July and August. Silcott-Duberry is the most natural fit on either side, favouring the right, and can play a number of central roles when required. Matos, who joined on a free transfer in July, is a Swiss army knife of a solution who has also already played in central midfield and a more advanced role under Robinson, while Boniface is another Under-18 who has stepped up on occasion and looked more than capable on the left flank.
Matos provides competition and depth in a central midfield that will look remarkably different to the unit that so often comprised Elliott, Webster and Cesare Casadei a year ago. Sam Rak-Sakyi and Jimi Tauriainen have been given a long look already, with the latter desperately in need of an injury-free campaign after suffering with absences in his first three years at the club, and the excellent Leo Castledine can play in a deeper capacity when required, though it comes at the expense of his outstanding ability in the attacking third. 16 year-old Kiano Dyer, who only signed a scholarship a few weeks ago, has not looked out of place against senior pros in National League opposition and will be given every chance to step up permanently.
Ronnie Stutter has paced all Dev Squad players this summer with six goals, including a hat-trick against Brentford, carrying on good form from the spring when he returned from the second of two foot injuries in quick succession. Back fit and firing, he should assume the goalscoring role soon to be vacated by Burstow, with additional competition provided by January signing Jimmy-Jay Morgan. Knee surgery ruled him out until June, but he too has been sharp in recent weeks, and has plenty of Under-21 experience from his time at Southampton. Louis Flower’s injury offered Donnell McNeilly the chance to show that he too can contribute but Flower is the one who can no longer return to Under-18 football, and his selfless running and strong hold-up play will be an asset to this squad as the season develops. Diego Moreira returns from a Stateside tour with Mauricio Pochettino’s senior men’s team squad and will slot right into the sort of role adopted by Hutchinson and Vale over the last twelve months; a dynamic game-changing talent who thrives in wide areas.
Several more Under-18s have spent time playing up in June and July, but they are likely to return into Hassan Sulaiman’s fold as he gets ready for his first full season in charge of the youth team. He replaced Ed Brand back in February after the long-time academy coach departed to join Jody Morris at Swindon Town, and he oversaw a promising ten-game stretch that gave plenty of cause for optimism heading into the break.
He will expect to lean on Luke Campbell and Kai Crampton in goal, although Curd and Merrick remain available, and all four provide quality depth and experience. Campbell supported Curd in the second half of last season, when Merrick was on loan at Hanwell Town, while Crampton is an England youth age group regular who has been in and around the Under-18 setup for a couple of years before putting pen to paper on his scholarship.
Sulaiman adopted a flat back four for much of the finish to last season but, as ever within the academy, will remain flexible towards available options and player development. Travis Akomeah suffered a serious injury last January but is now back to full fitness and will get up to speed in the heart of the defence before hoping to kick-start a journey that had him involved with the Development Squad shortly before his absence. Murray-Campbell’s budding steps up may leave room for second-year Kaiden Wilson and first-year Saheed Olagunju – a pair of towering physical specimens – to assert themselves in the squad, while Josh Acheampong is versatile enough to slide inside to a central role when not being used to great effect at right-back.
His competition out wide could come from Noah Hay, who also struggled with injuries a year ago and has been exploring opportunities elsewhere, but more likely from Genesis Antwi, who has played for both Sweden and England at Under-16 level. Boniface has the inside track on the left but will welcome competition from Marcell Washington, another England regular who possesses all the hallmarks of recent full and wing-back graduates through Cobham. If wing-backs are adopted on a more regular basis, Ato Ampah can play either side but is perhaps more effective with the reins off as a winger, while forward Chinonso Chibueze saw some minutes in that role last season as he figures out what his skillset suits best.
There is no shortage of quality in central midfield either, with Dyer already getting Under-21 minutes and Harrison McMahon doing the same at the end of his first scholarship campaign. He was among the most consistently impressive Under-18 players last term and a candidate for the captaincy if he features regularly over the next six months at least. Michael Golding can consider himself in the same conversation, while Reiss Russell-Denny has actually donned the armband as part of a younger group this summer. All four have outstanding technical traits and can run the game against any opposition.
Tyrique George and Frankie Runham have occasionally played as attacking eights but are more at home in the number ten position, or wider in various forward capacities. Runham broke through in his Under-16 season, including a UEFA Youth League goal that made him the fourth-youngest player to score in the competition, and is something of a free kick specialist to boot, an asset that will doubtless prove to be very useful to this group. Leo Cardoso is another with the right attributes to play across the forward line, Shaun Wade provides natural old-school wing play, while McNeilly will be challenged for centre-forward minutes by Shumaira Mheuka, who doesn’t turn 16 until October but will be entering his third season playing Under-18 football in some capacity.
Indeed, some of Mheuka’s schoolboy-age team-mates have enjoyed productive summers playing up the age groups, and you might see the likes of Hudson Sands, Joseph Wheeler-Henry, Landon Emenalo and Kobe Barbour feature early on as they stake their claim for opportunities at a higher level. As the season goes on, Harry McGlinchey, Rio Ngumoha, Sol Gordon, Tayo Subuloye and others will hope to make strides towards doing the same as part of another strong group vying for scholarship and first professional contracts in the biggest year of their footballing careers to date.
There is, as always, so very much to play for and to work towards as another exciting campaign of youth football is upon us. The Development Squad start on Friday at Kingsmeadow vs Blackburn Rovers, with tickets on sale now priced at £7 for adults and £5 for concessions, while the Under-18s kick off a week later at home to Crystal Palace. You can always keep up to date with absolutely everything here and on Twitter @chelseayouth.