Here we go again, then. It hardly seems like yesterday that we were welcoming the sixteen-strong class of 2022 but, after a year in which those players made significant strides in their first season as full-time footballers, it’s time to welcome another cohort of scholars into the academy.
The class of 2023 is a little different to most recent intakes in that the number of graduates coming through the Cobham system from the foundation phase – Under-12 and younger – is smaller than usual, with additional recruitment undertaken during the two years leading into this summer.
It is a group full of international experience and rich in quality, one that will immediately supplement Hassan Sulaiman’s youth team squad with fresh impetus. One or two among them played plenty of minutes at that level in 2022-23, meaning they will hope to kick on to make an impact with Mark Robinson’s Development Squad at some point over the coming months. Let’s meet them.
Genesis Antwi, Defender
A right-back or centre-back by trade, Genesis has represented both England and Sweden at Under-16 level and made his Chelsea youth team bow last season. He has similar qualities to Fikayo Tomori at a comparable age, combining natural athleticism with a confidence and authority in defending, and being able to step out and drive play through the lines into midfield.
Leo Cardoso, Attacking Midfielder
One of two players signed from West Brom during their Under-15 season, Leo has represented both England and Portugal at youth level and is a creative and versatile forward with a flair for the unpredictable and the exciting. He scored twice away to Norwich for the Under-18s last term in a campaign otherwise hampered by several injuries, which he is hopefully now clear of for the foreseeable future.
Kai Crampton, Goalkeeper
Another England youth international in the class, Kai has been a regular for the Three Lions and an occasional inclusion in Chelsea Under-17 and 18 matchday squads, biding his time patiently behind a queue of talented young stoppers ahead of him. He has the technical fundamentals you expect of a Cobham-developed stopper these days, a robust frame and quick instincts and reflexes while continuing to hone the all-round package.
Kiano Dyer, Midfielder
Dyer’s arrival from West Brom preceded Cardoso’s but was no less heralded; indeed, he has been the breakthrough prospect from this group, making 20 appearances for the Under-18s last season and four more in the UEFA Youth League. The son of former Leicester winger Lloyd, he excels as a deep playmaker in midfield, playing with a composure, patience and assurance in possession that is not especially common of English players at higher levels, but he can also be used as a tenacious box-to-box 8, or an inventive number 10 further forward.
Saheed Olagunju, Defender
Saheed is a tall and rangy left-sided central defender who can fill in at full-back if needed and, while he has only made one Under-18 appearance to date (that coming at left-back), there is plenty to come in the years ahead. As he develops a comfort and understanding of his lengthy frame, he should be a force to be reckoned with at the heart of the Blues’ defence. Older brother Mustapha has been in Huddersfield Town’s academy system for the last few seasons too.
Frankie Runham, Forward
Frankie joined Dyer as the other major breakthrough player from last season’s Under-16s, playing 14 times for the Under-18s while also becoming the fourth-youngest scorer in UEFA Youth League history. At his best as a second striker, slightly withdrawn from the 9, he can also play wider and spent some of last term as a right wing- back. He possesses a terrific shot, is something of a free-kick specialist, and is an all-round dynamic attacking force who can do a little bit of everything.
Shaun Wade, Wide Forward
Shaun is an old-school winger who signed from Bristol City during his Under-14 season and is a stocky but undersized dribbler who operates wonderfully in tight spaces and routinely embarrasses opponents with his ability to play off both feet and in any direction. While he is yet to make his Under-18 bow, he was a part of the Under-17 team in the Ajax Future Cup back in March, scoring against Pachuca.
Marcell Washington, Defender
A left-back or wing-back who can slide inside and play as a centre-back in a three on occasion, or indeed play further forward on the wing, Marcell is another England youth international with strong pedigree and quality in all phases of play. Despite his shorter stature, he plays with a big character and provides an assured confident in and out of possession, contributing as one would expect from a modern young prospect.
Additionally, Shumaira Mheuka made two Under-18 appearances last season despite being 14 at the outset and, having played at the same level for Brighton several months before moving to Cobham, he is expected to be a full-time member of Sulaiman’s squad in his Under-16 season ahead.
His team-mates in that age group include England youth internationals Hudson Sands (who also played twice for the Under-18s last term), Kobe Barbour and Rio Ngumoha, while Harry McGlinchey and Yahya Idrissi have represented the Republic of Ireland and Morocco respectively. They could all find themselves getting early opportunities to impress.
We also take the time to wish those having departed the club at this juncture the very best of luck in their new homes; Dovydas Sasnauskas and Jackson Blaize (both Sheffield United), Kristian Shevchenko (Watford), Joshua Ajala (West Ham), George Holley (Peterborough), Moses Sesay and Abdul Matthews (both Southampton), Ola Ademola and Rhomey Ashby-Hammond, while the likes of Marcus Hill (Crystal Palace), Preston Fearon (West Ham), Farhaan Ali Wahid (Fulham), Josh Pescatore and Teo Minchev (Swansea via Tottenham and Arsenal respectively) departed within the last two years and are representative of the depth and reach that Cobham has across the game at all levels. Declan Rice is the highest-profile example of a player that departed the Blues before scholarship age and went on to achieve great things for club and country and, while many of these 16 year-olds will have experienced recent disappointment, their journey is only beginning and bright futures lie ahead.
The new cohort of scholars get into their full pre-season swing on July 15th in a behind-closed doors friendly in Spain, before taking in fixtures away to Club Brugge, Kingstonian, Newcastle and Man City. The Under-18 Premier League season gets under way on August 12th and, as always, you can keep fully abreast of everything throughout the year here and on twitter (if it’s still going…) @chelseayouth.