July 2nd 2003: the day Roman Abramovich acquired Chelsea Football Club for £140m. Abramovich had just saved the club from near certain financial ruin, but the relief of salvation was soon overtaken by fear for the future.
Very little was known of Abramovich apart from the fact that he’d managed to amass an incredible fortune at a relatively young age. Personal financial security confirmed, it seemed that the Russian oil tycoon was ready to have some fun. And Chelsea FC appeared to be his new plaything.
There were immediate assurances from the club that this was not the case. Roman Abramovich was a businessman and he would run the club accordingly. The £121m spent on players in owner’s first transfer window may have suggested differently, but all were soon comforted by the talk of long-term investment in a new stadium, overseas marketing and home-grown talent.
11 years on, and the Chelsea’s youth team have just qualified for their fifth FA Cup Youth Final in eight years. The 2014 showdown with Fulham is the club’s third consecutive final, and Chelsea are attempting to win back the crown that has started to feel like theirs.
Such success can only be seen as positive for a club. It’s suggestive of a brighter, one in which the club can reduce their outlay on transfers and the fans can delight in watching youth team prospects grow into first-team regulars.
However, while Chelsea have been successful in producing good young players, they’re yet to have the same success in playing them. This would the easy part you’d imagine; it’s finding the players that’s difficult. But recent history would suggest that Chelsea have forgot about the development bit of youth development.
Josh McEachran was once the shining light at Stamford Bridge. During the 2010/11 season, the then 18-year-old made 17 appearances for Carlo Ancelotti’s team. The midfielder’s crisp passing appeared to offer some relief in a Chelsea midfield that often looked sluggish and McEachran not only appeared to have a bright future for Chelsea, but for England also.
Unfortunately for McEachran, Carlo Ancelotti would be sacked on the final day of the season having failed to defend the Premier League crown that he’d won in his first season in charge of the club. Andre Villas-Boas was to come in, and with him, Oriol Romeu, Juan Mata and Raul Meireles.
Where once there appeared to be a space being pruned for the young midfielder there were now three Iberians. The result for McEachran has been to live the nomadic life that has become commonplace for the post-teens at Stamford Bridge. The central midfielder has been loaned from club to club in order to gain first-team experience, with only one successful season at Middlesbrough in the last three.
The problem with outsourcing development in this way is that club put their asset’s future in the hands of another. The assumption at Chelsea is presumably that if a player is good enough, they will become good enough anywhere. However, this seems like a pretty naïve approach to take to development.
This kind of thinking is in fitting with the old-fashioned school of thought that ‘players are born, not made’. But one look at the academy graduates of Barcelona’s La Masia would suggest different.
But Chelsea’s recent history in the FA Youth Cup would indicate that the club are actually quite good at development. This then begs the question why the club seem to give up on their prospects when they come of age?
The problem would seem to be one of patience. This increasingly illusive virtue in modern football is apparently non-existent at Stamford Bridge.
It’s tragic that the club don’t appear to have the ability to wait for something good. Despite the rhetoric that is constantly trotted out of the club, it’s seems that their first impulse is always to trade it in for a quick fix.