Reflections On The 2023-24 Chelsea Academy Season

Four minutes after Josh Acheampong’s equaliser in the Under-18 Premier League National Final, Donnelly McNeilly clipped a shot agonisingly wide of the post at the Matthew Harding End.

Two minutes after he’d restored parity in the PL2 Playoff Semi Finals, Deivid Washington watched as his effort hit the inside of the post, rolled across the face of goal and away to safety.

Chelsea lost both of those matches by fine margins which, as we reflect on the 2023-24 season, rather sums up a lot of what we saw unfold. The Under-18s saw another FA Youth Cup challenge come to an abrupt halt as they lost on penalties away to Millwall, having been knocked out of the Under-18 League Cup at home to Leicester, both defeats coming in the Quarter Finals. The Development Squad too felt the pain of a last eight exit in the PL International Cup, falling to PSV in a controversial affair, while their league Semi Final demise was matched in the PL Cup as they were humbled at home by Fulham at the same stage, in what was their most disappointing performance of the campaign.

It might seem unfair to focus on the negatives at the end of a year with so many positives, but bear with me. This is an academy that competed for an unprecedented seven trophies across two age groups and managed to remain in serious contention for all of them longer than any other club in the country could even dream of. They won the Under-18 South title for the first time in six years, and did so in a dominant, swaggering style. The Under-17s, many of whom emerged as significant contributors as the months wore on, claimed a maiden Premier League Cup at their own age group, featuring a number of Under-16s who also won their fair share of silverware this term.

And therefore, while the last week of the season in particular was etched with heartbreak and disappointment, it is a definitive sign of progress that the Blues are once again at the very top of the youth development game, on and off the pitch. They never truly went away, of course, and they have what may be Europe’s most remarkable recent production line, but for a setup that won every trophy available to them for a golden five-year run ending in 2018, the expectations haven’t quite been matched by the outcomes in the five years since.

If you want to measure success in debuts and graduations, that’s fine too; Mauricio Pochettino handed debuts to Levi Colwill, Alex Matos, Alfie Gilchrist, Michael Golding, Leo Castledine, Cesare Casadei, Jimi Tauriainen and Josh Acheampong in his first season as Head Coach, matching the total of his two predecessors combined and also striking par with Frank Lampard’s tenure while establishing Conor Gallagher as his captain of choice.

More than a dozen others saw their name on official men’s first-team team sheets, aided in part by a lengthy and at times farcical injury list, but the experience they will have had in spending time in and around the senior environment will not only serve them well as they continue to forge on with their careers, but also in what they bring back over the road to the academy building with them after dipping their toes in more illustrious waters.

Speak to anyone in the academy about the process and the work undertaken on a daily basis at Cobham and you’ll quickly establish a theme; that culture trumps everything. Setting high standards, demanding quality, empowering creativity and problem-solving, reinforcing proper behaviours and practices – these are all non-negotiables in a high performance environment, and they underpin everything Chelsea have done at this level for more than two decades.

Perhaps understandably, some of this fell out of alignment a little during the pandemic years, particularly with more limited contact time (and for a while none) on and off the pitch, but there has been a steely drive to reset and to go again, moving forward with new academy leadership under Jim Fraser and Jack Francis, with Neil Bath now Director of Football Operations but never far away from an academy touchline at whatever age group you happen to be watching. Vision 2030 is up to speed, recruitment is strong across the full spectrum of teams, and the trophies continue to fill the cabinet in the academy’s reception to the point they are now littered around whatever space happens to be available.

So, what comes next? Well, for starters, they’ll go after the same seven trophies again next season – there’s no UEFA Youth League for a second straight year, which is a source of frustration – but having come so close so many times, many of the same players will return with a point to prove and the experience to know what it takes to get over the line. Mark Robinson, Hassan Sulaiman and their respective staffs did a brilliant job this season blending the squads together to ensure a fairly seamless transition between seasons when everyone returns in July. Consider that Tyrique George made 26 appearances for the Dev Squad and 21 for the Under-18s in his final year of eligibility; McNeilly had 20 and 26 respectively, Michael Golding 21 and 14, Reiss Russell-Denny 15 and 26, while Somto Boniface, Harrison Murray-Campbell, Josh Acheampong and Harrison McMahon all had good looks at times, and first-year scholar Kiano Dyer was an Under-21 regular.

Sulaiman, in his first full season as youth team lead, was able to lean on that strong second-year core but had Frankie Runham, Ollie Harrison and Genesis Antwi among key first-year contributors, with Saheed Olagunju, Shaun Wade and Leo Cardoso coming along later in the season, and more than a dozen of this summer’s new incoming scholars getting a taste of the next level, led by Shim Mheuka, who scored 12 goals and will be eyeing an early promotion to the Dev Squad himself.

The elephant in the room, somewhat out of everyone’s control, is what the landscape looks like beyond the academy’s direct influence. Despite persistent reports that the Sporting Directors are happy to listen to underwhelming offers for Trevoh Chalobah and Conor Gallagher, Pochettino made them not just mainstays when fit (Gallagher is always available and topped 4,000 minutes in all competitions), but captains and leaders within his group. He has since ‘left by mutual consent’. Lewis Hall has been sold and both Ian Maatsen (a Champions League finalist) and Armando Broja will follow this summer, all in the name of paying for players who have yet to prove themselves any better, and may never do.

If the South American market continues to appeal so much as to spend more money on one 17 year-old than the academy’s entire annual operating budget, there will be disappointment, frustration, and inevitable departures, but then those are nothing new, as the Roman Abramovich era was littered with similar tales from departees who have gone on to experience the full spectrum of football’s possibilities. It is, however, not quite so easy to sell your home-grown produce to fund your spending habits when your largesse needs justifying with minutes at the direct expense of the players you need to play to pay for it all.

Perhaps that’s for another day though. Pre-season is seven weeks away and that’s both a long time and no time at all. The landscape on the other side of the break could look very different for a whole host of reasons but, from a purely footballing perspective, the 2023-24 youth season at Chelsea was one of promise, of hope, of persistence and of success. Maybe not as much as they’d have liked going into the final stretch, but success all the same. Their place as the best academy in England may be disputed by red and blue factions in Manchester, but the names speak for themselves. There’s a lot more on the way too.