Over the last five years, Chelsea have been one of the top powers in English football. The West London club became European Champions in 20012, won the Premier League in 2010, adding the FA Cup to claim the domestic double, and won the old pot again in 2012. They also won the Europa League in 2013, and having already secured this season’s League Cup, look are odds on to win the league again. It’s all pretty impressive, but certainly not dominant. Despite the absence of any recent home-grown talent in Jose Mourinho’s the first choice eleven, the same cannot be said for the club’s youth team, across the same period.
In the same five year timespan, the club has been in every FA Youth Cup final, except for 2011, winning three of them, and finishing runners-up to Norwich City in 2013. They are also in this year’s final and after playing the first leg against Manchester City on Monday take a two goal lead back to Stamford Bridge for the return next week. In a performance carrying echoes of the first team, they took a 2-0 lead, before city pulled a goal back, then drew their opponents on to them before hitting them with a third, and potentially killer, goal. They have to be strong favourites now to retain the trophy.
On top of that, they lost the final of Uefa’s ‘NextGen Series’ in 2013, lost in the quarter-final of the re-vamped competition, now labelled the UEFA U-19 Champions League last year, and a couple of weeks ago won this season’s competition, against opposition the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. They comfortably despatched Shakhtar Donetsk in the final with a performance that presaged the City game.
You would imagine that this all adds up to a bright future at Stamford Bridge for the club’s youngsters. Not a single player from those successful sides however, has yet to break through and establish themselves as a first team player. Some such as Nathan Ake and Josh McEachran have flirted with first team football and notched a few appearances, but with Ake on loan at Reading and McEachran currently with Vitesse – on loan with his fifth different club – regular first team football at Stamford Bridge is a distant prospect. In fact, of the 16 players that won the 2010 final against Aston Villa, although the vast majority are playing professional, only McEachran is still a Chelsea player. So, why is that?
Some will of course point at Chelsea’s penchant for signing overseas players that block the progress of Academy graduates. Witness the imminent arrival of Brazilian ‘wonderkid’ Nathan for example. There may however be another reason. Uefa’s cock-eyed FFP regulations, already being damned by many as instead of levelling the playing field, seem to lock-in any pre-existing bias in favour of the wealthier clubs, may also have played a part. The need to ‘balance the books’ or be seen to be moving towards such a scenario led some clubs, and Chelsea are only one example, to look at their Academy system not as a production line of talent for the first team squad, but as a money-making operation, almost separate from the rest of the club.
The scenario wherein a club signs or buys up promising youngsters at low prices, develops them in a successful youth set up, perhaps gives them a few first team games, and ten sells for a large profit, is something I’ve heard suggested on more than a couple of occasions. Going back to that successful 2010 Chelsea team, Jeffrey Bruma was sold to PSV Eindhoven after a couple of loan spells, and no-one would be wildly surprised if the a similar thing happened with McEachran or Ake. Even the lesser known players from that 2010 team will have been sold, raising more finance for the club.
There are of course always exceptions to the rule and in Nathaniel Chalobah, Chelsea have a 20 year-old player currently serving his fifth loan spell, but who remains very much on the club’s radar as a potential first team player. Of the current successful U-19 squad, much the same could be said for Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Izzy Brown and Dominic Solanke, all of whom excelled in the recent European success – and of course, all of whom are English.
There’s very little prospect of getting Chelsea to ‘cough up’ on the rationale for running their Academy as they do. There may well be an element of the ‘quick fix’ mentality by buying in the ready-made quality player. It’s not beyond reason however, that FFP is having the effect of thwarting Greg Dyke’s aspiration of having more England-qualified players in the Premier League. Although, of the 11 players that started this year’s UEFA U-19 Champions League final, nine were qualified to play for England. The success – or otherwise – of Loftus-Cheek, Brown and Solanke, may just prove the point one way or the other.