Reflections On The 2022-23 Chelsea Academy Season

In the last few editions of these summaries, I’ve made a point of noting how long it’s been since the academy won the FA Youth Cup or dominated in the silverware department. After another campaign without a trophy at Under-18, 19 or 21 levels, it would be easy to do that. With each passing year, though, it becomes less relevant; an inaccurate barometer of where Chelsea find themselves right now.

For, while seeking to emulate the likes of Reece James, Mason Mount, Conor Gallagher, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Trevoh Chalobah, Armando Broja and all of those who’ve departed is genuine and admirable, the landscape in 2023 is different to 2018, which was in turn different to 2013. This is a Chelsea academy operating under an ownership approaching the end of their first full year in charge, an academy having undergone structural change at the highest level, coaching reshuffles at all age groups, and recruitment rethinks in more competitive markets than ever before. It really is a brave new world, for better or worse.

The headlines in terms of performances on the pitch offer genuine room for positivity; the Development Squad bounced back from avoiding relegation in the last five minutes of the 21-22 season and mounted a stronger PL2 title challenge than the final league standings reflect. They reached the last sixteen of the EFL Trophy for the second year running, and there were senior debuts for Omari Hutchinson and Bashir Humphreys on top of the emergence of Lewis Hall either side of the World Cup break.

Yes, there were disappointments in the UEFA Youth League and Youth Cup – albeit against teams that went on to greater things in those competitions, outlining the unexpected quality Chelsea found themselves up against – and the Under-18s technically had a lower winning percentage (used instead of games won as they played four fewer league games this season) while finishing higher in the standings, but the collective and individual development from August through to April was positive and perhaps best demonstrated by the fact they lost just one of their last seven games.

Mark Robinson’s arrival as Development Squad lead coach heralded the start of a new era, succeeding Andy Myers after three seasons in which he won the PL2 title and oversaw the development of several talented graduates, and it got off to an absolute flier with a 7-1 demolition of Wolves in August. Under the long-time Wimbledon academy chief and latterly first-team manager, they lost just two league matches before the winter break, while plotting a successful if dramatic course through their EFL Trophy group, advancing thanks to a late Malik Mothersille brace away to Leyton Orient in October.

Expensive summer signings Omari Hutchinson and Cesare Casadei injected fresh impetus into a squad that had also welcomed Zak Sturge the January before, and those three helped build a core with Mason Burstow, Alfie Gilchrist, Josh Brooking, Ben Elliott, Charlie Webster and Dion Rankine that ensured the relegation threat the club faced a year ago would be a one-time aberration.

Their EFL Trophy run came to an end at Cheltenham in a fixture scheduled while several of those key regulars had been away with Graham Potter’s squad in an Abu Dhabi training camp, leaving them with a pair of 16 year-old and two more 17 year-olds on the pitch at full time. It was a similarly frustrating end to the league season too, where four defeats in a row saw them drop to third when they were clearly the second-best team behind champions Manchester City.

The Under-18s flirted with a title challenge themselves briefly in the first half a dozen games with sixteen new first-year scholars in their ranks, but West Ham’s relentless pursuit of perfection left everyone trailing in their wake. That meant a shift in priorities; their hopes of retaining the Under-18 Premier League Cup were dealt a considerable blow from the outset when Ed Brand rightly chose to rotate his squad and hand minutes to several who had lacked them in the opening month, while opponents Southampton brought back several early Under-21 graduates from PL2 duty with no fixture that weekend.

Southampton won that match 3-0 and Chelsea couldn’t make it out of the group, but they did exact some measure of revenge with a Quarter Final win against the Saints in the Under-17 version of the same competition. That group fell at the Semi Final stage following a penalty shootout defeat to Tottenham after 120 of the season’s most remarkable minutes, and it signalled the end of their trophy hopes for the year after a shock Youth Cup exit at the hands of Cambridge United.

Losing to Cambridge was, of course, not what anyone wanted, but the Us did go on to reach the last eight where they gave Arsenal the fright of their lives before succumbing to a stoppage-time winner at the Emirates in a run that showcased their own quality. The Blues’ defeat at the Abbey Stadium – a fixture twice rescheduled at short notice following adverse weather and stadium damage, no less – was also Brand’s last in charge of the youth team after three and a half years at the helm.

He ventured west to reunite with Jody Morris at Swindon Town and was replaced by Hassan Sulaiman, a long-time youth development phase coach at Cobham and most recently the Under-16s lead. Sulaiman oversaw ten league fixtures, winning five and drawing two, and the group will be in highly capable hands as it moves forward. The target will, as ever, be to return to the pinnacle of youth football in England and challenge across the board as well as developing a steady flow of talent into the men’s first team at Stamford Bridge, and into the wider professional game.

Those are two of the tent poles of the much vaunted (and often misunderstood) Vision 2030; a roadmap laid out by academy management last summer to guide their work over the next half-decade. It explicitly builds on previous objectives and measurables on and off the pitch, and seeks to elevate them to even loftier standards while building sustainable relationships with the coaching staff on the ‘other side of the road’ at Cobham. It is not, however, tangibly linked with transfer dealings to sign the likes of Gabriel Slonina, Carney Chukwuemeka, Andrey Santos, Kendry Paez and other talented young players already affecting the professional game elsewhere and who aren’t directly involved with the academy programme.

They are all pieces of the same puzzle though, and a healthy and robust football club can organise those pieces into a complete picture efficiently and successfully. Neil Bath was elevated into a new position as Director of Football Development and Operations in November, increasing his remit across the whole of Cobham with responsibility for helping make exactly that happen, but it will take time. With several key personnel arriving into high-ranking roles over the last nine months, and a very flat hierarchy, collaboration is key. As everyone builds a better understanding of who they are, what they excel at, and how that shapes the future, the academy should retain a prominent position within the club.

Academy football is more competitive than ever. Increasing money within the English game has allowed the majority of Category One academies – generally the best in the country – to close the gap on the top half a dozen clubs in the second half of the first ten years of the Elite Player Performance Plan. That came into effect in 2012 and Chelsea cleaned up early on, only to find the waters a little choppier by comparison after 2017. In the South league Arsenal, Fulham, Southampton and West Ham have emerged as title challengers and winners, while Man City (operating on a different financial level to everyone else) have opened a gap between themselves and everyone else in the North during the same period.

The impact of Brexit on youth recruitment in England has forced everyone to shop in the same smaller talent pool, leading to inflated wages and increased recruitment of Under-13, 14 and 15 players moving to the top of the food chain earlier than ever before. In Chelsea’s case, they toiled under a transfer ban during the 2019-20 season, which widely affected youth registrations and left them playing catch-up compared to many of their direct competitiors.

They’ve made up for lost time in some areas, particularly with the arrival of both Leo Cardoso and Kiano Dyer from West Brom, with more additions set to follow in the months ahead. Giving Dyer and fellow Under-16 Frankie Runham a regular run in the UEFA Youth League against players three or four years older than them in some cases also perhaps suggested a slight shift in focus towards the long-term picture, particularly when paired alongside a recognition that this was not necessarily a team expected to challenge for that trophy this season and one that will not feature next season. Last summer’s intake has a depth and breadth of talent that will eventually make a significant impact but, whereas we might have been used to seeing youth team stars hit the ground running in the real world at 18 and 19, the current crop might ‘only’ start coming into their own in their early 20s.

That’s the beauty and the charm of academy football. Every journey is different and everyone has a unique story to tell. What has happened in the past doesn’t offer any assurances of the future; it only serves to inform the decisions you make along the way. Chelsea’s remains an academy in rude health, from Stamford Bridge debutants to an ever-increasing number of graduates across the world; some 25% of players awarded a scholarship at Chelsea over the last ten years have played for the club at least once (excluding those still in development) and almost two in every ten have earned international representation. Cobham remains one of the best finishing schools around and, with younger age groups ensuring the honours cabinet continues to (literally) overflow with hardware, you can rest assured that the future remains very bright indeed.