It’s probably easy to get disheartened as a youth player at Chelsea. The west London side have a frankly abysmal record of bringing through players from their (multi-million pound) Cobham academy, a fact not lost on their supporters or indeed, casual onlookers.
Despite huge investment from owner Roman Abramovich, fans of the Stamford Bridge side have had little or no home-grown talent to cheer on for a long time. Only club captain John Terry has progressed through the ranks well enough to make a considerable impact on the senior side, and even he was around long before the arrival of the Russian oligarch.
The club have even stated a desire to concentrate more on youth development in recent seasons, as opposed to the large-scale investment in playing staff that has become synonymous with the Blues under Abramovich. And with four FA Youth Cup wins in the last six years there is clearly some considerable talent knocking around the development squads at Chelsea, but you’re far more likely to go on-loan and eventually get sold than actually make it into the senior side unfortunately.
On his return to the club in 2013, Jose Mourinho stated that: “The most important part of my job at the moment is the improvement of the youth here. They have big potential, and I think I have the conditions to help improve them”, but ultimately we saw him return to his familiar habit of selecting more senior players, rarely wavering from his ‘tried and trusted’ favourites – something that brought short-term success, yet ultimately became a factor in his eventual downfall and dismissal.
The track record of the club as a whole is very poor in it’s youth development, however, and it’s really only very recently that interim-manager Guus Hiddink has managed to give some significant game-time to a handful of academy prospects – the likes of Kenedy and Bertrand Traore featuring increasingly more often as the season progresses. And looking to the future, whoever eventually takes the (scorchingly) hot-seat at Stamford Bridge must integrate at least one or two of the talented academy prospects on their books if the club are to stand a chance of fulfilling their vision.
And with a good showing for Watford this season, 21-year-old Nathan Ake has given himself a good chance of doing just that. As with the majority of Chelsea’s youngsters, the versatile defender was sent out on loan for the season. Having signed a new five-year deal immediately prior to his move to Vicarage Road, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the club had him in their plans for the future, but it’s likely as much to do with maintaining/increasing a potential transfer fee for the player in the future as it is to do with genuine prospects at Stamford Bridge.
But, with the youth-averse Mourinho now out of the picture, we could yet see the young Dutchman return to his parent club and become a part of the first-team plans yet. ”Of course, I would like to return to Chelsea” the 21-year-old told the official KNVB website. ”But it is important for a player of my age to get regular playing time.” A feeling shared by many of his fellow loanees, I’m sure. But given his impressive performances for the Hornets this term, you feel that he can succeed where many others fail should he be given that chance.
Having made 23 appearances in all competitions for a Watford side that has kept 13 clean sheets, Ake has played a key role at left-back for Quique Sanchez-Flores this campaign. And with a Chelsea side struggling in the position he has half a chance. Mourinho tried to fix the problematic left-back area first with Filipe Luis, then with Abdul Baba Rahman, although neither were given a real chance with ‘right-back’ Cesar Azpilicueta regularly preferred to both.
But with a waning Branislav Ivanovic on the books, the Spaniard could be moved back to his natural position sooner rather than later, leaving the left-back position up for grabs. Ake has proven he can handle the demands of Premier League football and could make the position his own if given the opportunity. Ryan Bertrand was a top prospect once upon a time, and even played in the Champions League Final in 2012, but was ultimately deemed not good enough – his subsequent performances for Southampton suggesting that was a mistake.
Hopefully for Chelsea fans Ake’s quality will not be similarly overlooked and he can find his way into contention for the first-team at Stamford Bridge. It would certainly buck the trend at a club renowned more for it’s ‘big-name’ stars than it’s youth development and, although not English, having been at the club since the age of 15 would be a welcome sight for the Chelsea fans as they search for another ‘home-grown hero’ to cheer on at ‘The Bridge’. They just pray he’s given the chance.