Last week, Chelsea completed a youth double in the form of the FA Youth Cup and the U21 Premier League title. It was a proud moment for the Blues youth system, who have now reached the final of the former tournament five times in the last eight years.
But in truth, the Chelsea development squad’s 2-1 victory against Manchester United in the U21 Play-Off final at Old Trafford was a rather hollow victory. For all the millions spent, time consumed and players prioritised in making the West Londoners one of England’s most formidable youth outfits, just three Chelsea academy products have become first team regulars at Stamford Bridge since the turn of the millennium – John Terry, Ryan Bertrand and Nemanja Matic.
And although the Chelsea captain’s rise to the starting XI in the early 2000s was a simple enough path, Bertrand and Matic have not been so lucky. Struggling to adequately prove himself as the rightful successor to Ashley Cole, Bertrand has been sent out on loan to Aston Villa this season and his Blues career at this moment in time is dead in the water. Likewise with the Serbian, despite spending three years previously at Stamford Bridge, it took claiming the Primeira Liga’s Player of the Year award with Benfica to prove he was good enough for the Chelsea first team.
The issue certainly isn’t one of quality or the club’s ability to adequately develop young players – their record in the FA Youth Cup, U21 Premier League and it’s forbearers is evidence enough of that, having claimed six titles across the youth levels since 2009. Rather, it appears to be Roman Abramovich’s culture of short-termism that’s holding back the potential of Chelsea’s youth system.
Since acquiring the West London outfit in 2003, the Russian billionaire has burnt through eleven managers, including Jose Mourinho twice, as he maintains an insistence upon consistently impressive results and regular silverware.
The cut-throat approach has hardly blunted Chelsea’s first team; they’ve claimed thirteen trophies following Abramovich’s arrival over a decade ago. But it’s put enormous pressures on managers to provide instant success and restricted them from looking ahead into future campaigns. Resultantly, the risk of blooding in a Chelsea youngster, regardless of his potential, has far outweighed the reward under Abramovich’s regime.
Furthermore, the fresh stipulations of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play laws has seen Chelsea’s development model take a rather sinister turn. Goal.com’s Liam Twomey has described it as; “a truly vast operation, overseen by technical director Michael Emenalo, involving players of 14 different nationalities playing in nine different divisions across five countries, and clearly operated with an eye on more than simply developing the future stars of Stamford Bridge.”
The ulterior motive, amid the new era of FFP, is to increase the value of Chelsea’s youth prospects as much as possible, a process which largely consists of cherry-picking EU prodigies for low fees – their £1.5million swoop for Patrick Bamford or Kevin De Bruyne for £8million from FC Genk in summer 2012 are classic examples – then loaning them out to various foreign leagues to improve their profiles, before selling them for a significant mark-up.
Farming young players is nothing new, but what makes Chelsea’s approach so concerning is that their sole motivation remains simply to offset costly incomings for the first team in the FFP accounts by selling young players. Any player that might prove good enough for the Blues’ senior squad is merely a by-product of an incredibly macabre, money-making system. Even the likes of Nathaniel Chalobah, Bertrand Traore, Christian Atsu, Thorgen Hazard, Lucas Piazon, Wallace and Kenneth Omeru, just a few of the club’s many loanees who have enjoyed impressive spells away from Stamford Bridge this season, are unlikely to ever feature regularly for their parent club.
There are signs however that the fate of Chelsea’s latest generation of youngsters could be more fruitful than the last, with an unlikely hero in Jose Mourinho.
The Portuguese has never demonstrated a particular liking for youth throughout spells with the Blues, Porto, Real Madrid or Inter Milan, but commented earlier in the season; “I like that local core. To keep the culture of the country in your own team’s style is also very important, and you cannot lose characteristics of the local football. In three or four years’ time, if we don’t have other Englishmen to replace this nucleus of players – when Lamps is 39, John is 36 – I will be very sad. Every club needs that.”
Never has this mission to maintain Chelsea’s home-grown contingent become more prevalent amid a summer in which the West Londoners could be saying goodbye to England centurions Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole.
Admittedly, actions speak louder than words. But Mourinho hasn’t merely paid lip-service to a growing issue in West London. Both Jamal Blackman and Nathan Ake, the former the U21s goalkeeper and the latter the U21s captain, have been promoted to first team duties on occasion this term, whilst John Swift, a combative midfielder who featured in the U21 final against United, received his Premier League debut against Cardiff on the final day of the season. 21 year-old defender Tomas Kalas has been used in a cameo role by Mourinho this year, with his finest hour coming in a 2-0 victory over Liverpool, whilst Swift, along with Andreas Christensen and Lewis Baker, who netted against the Red Devils’ U21s, have been training with Chelsea’s senior squad for much of the year.
Yet Ake, Blackman and Swift, along with the likes of Isaiah Brown, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Islam Feruz, three other highly-rated members of Chelsea’s academy, will be well aware of the almost implausible challenge at hand.
As we learned from the sale of Kevin de Bruyne in January, quality is not enough to make you a first team regular at Stamford Bridge – especially under Jose Mourinho. Although the Chelsea boss has pledged to improve his club’s record of nurturing young talents, the attitude he wants from his players is rather unique. The Belgium international, despite starting two of Chelsea’s first three matches this season, proved to the Portuguese in less than six months that his mentality didn’t fit a Jose Mourinho side. Romelu Lukaku, a striker who dons a strike rate of one-in-two in the Premier League, could go on to share a similar fate for the same reason this summer.
That will be the toughest task of all for Chelsea’s latest crop of youngsters – even if you escape the clutches of their money-making loan system, even if Jose Mourinho stays at Stamford Bridge long enough to recognise your potential, should you not be aligned to the Portuguese’s rather exclusive philosophy and management style, then you will soon be hastily moved on from West London without a second’s thought, for a handsome profit.