Can Chelsea Turn Youth Investment Into First Team Success?

This week Chelsea U19’s defeated their Blackburn counterparts in the second leg of the FA Youth Cup Quarter Final, winning the game finished 4-0 (5-0 on aggregate), the club has reached it’s second FA Youth Cup Final in three years.

Whilst this is a noteworthy achievement for the players, coaches and scouts involved, it remains to be seen if this early achievement will translate into first team opportunities for the cream of the blue’s academy crop.

Since the club came under the ownership of Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich in 2003, substantial amounts of money have been spent developing the club’s youth set up. After six years the owner and the fans are desperate to see some return on this investment to replenish an ageing squad.

This hunger is intensified as John Terry is the last player to have broken through the ranks at Stamford Bridge and this was over a decade ago. Since then only a handful of players have come from the youth setup to make their senior debut, fewer still have secured more than insubstantial cameo appearances.

The last 12 months has seen a dramatic rise in the number of youth players on the fringes of the first team. From the most recent batch of players tipped to breakthrough, Michael Mancienne, Miroslav Stoch, Scott Sinclair, Franco Di Santo, Jeffery Bruma and Sam Hutchinson have all had a taste of first team football in the last 18 months.

The demolition of Portsmouth last night saw Patrick Van Aanholt join this list, the clubs full back injury crisis gifting the player a 19 minute cameo. Van Aanholt started on the bench behind a player who is recognised in his position, however the lack of trust in the club’s youth system has time and again seen out of position senior players given the nod ahead of a youth team specialists.

When a squad weakness becomes apparent, expectation and wealth mean that the focus will always be on the potential players the club could buy, rather than those who could be brought through the ranks.  Expectation levels are so high that any player looking to breakthrough must already be world class before standing any chance of making the starting eleven.

This practice may be the result of, or the cause of, the proliferation of loan deals involving Chelsea youngsters. During this season alone 15 players have gone out on loan at one point or other, and it is common practise for some of these players to spend 2 or 3 years constantly away from the club.   

Of the players to make their debut in the last 18 months only Sam Hutchinson and Jeffery Bruma have not been on loan at some point this season.

Also of the players currently registered at Chelsea; Scott Sinclair, has played for 6 other clubs since joining in 2005, Slobodan Rajkovic has gained international notoriety during his two seasons overseas and Michael Mancienne who has spent part of each of the last 4 seasons plying his trade away from Stamford Bridge.

Notable players to have gone on loan early in their career include David Beckham (Preston North End), Rio Ferdinand (Bournemouth) and Chelsea’s captain John Terry (Nottingham Forest).

However is the continuous loan culture at Chelsea worthwhile? Cynics may argue that with the quality of the senior players at Chelsea and the subsequent experience and advice available, that all these extended loans do is reduce the queue for lunch at the club’s Cobham training ground.

Yet there are many arguments for sending a player out on loan, the strongest of which is the opportunity to gain first team experience that you just cannot gain on the training ground.

Players are also likely to develop as footballers and for those who will not immediately make it at the highest level, these stints are a vital shop window in the bid to secure their professional football career. In the last year alone Tom Taiwo and Jimmy Smith have left the club to play for sides which they had previously been sent out on loan.

Soccerlens spoke to David Chidgey part of the Chelsea Football Fancast, to get a fans perspective on the opportunities available for Chelsea’s academy players, and clubs continuous loan culture.

During the conversation David mentioned that this was a popular topic of conversation amongst Chelsea fans and that the general consensus was that players were not getting a chance to prove themselves. Stating that many fans felt players should get a “proper run in the team rather than a token two or three minutes here and there”.

This disappointment was also apparent when discussing the clubs loan policies with many fans feeling that few players having gone out on loan to come back improved, or ready for the first team.

Looking at the Chelsea squad and the wealth of talent available to Carlo Ancelotti, it is difficult to see a future at the club for most of the players who fought so hard to reach the FA Youth Cup Final.

Many will point to the records of Alex Ferguson’s and Arsene Wenger to say that it is possible to bring players through at a top club and criticise the lack of youth progress at Chelsea.

However without the stability and patience provided by these managers during the development phase of a players career many of the stars they nurtured may never have risen above mediocrity. With the instability at the managerial level of the club in recent times this pastoral care has clearly been lacking, the club must improve this if it wants to have a successful youth policy.

Whether any of those who play in the FA Youth Cup Final go on to play regularly for Chelsea is difficult to say, the odds are  certainlystacked against them. However in football stranger things have happened and as with much of what has happened since the Abramovich takeover, Chelsea must go their own way to find success.

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