Completing our week of celebration for the 10th anniversary of Roman Abramovich becoming owner, the official Chelsea website looks today at two areas of the club boosted considerably in that time – youth development and social responsibility, beginning here with the Academy’s progress…
The sight of Roman Abramovich looking down on the action from his Millennium Suite at Stamford Bridge is a familiar one for match-going Chelsea fans. Our Academy manager Neil Bath’s experience of working with the owner, however, shows a man concerned with all levels of the club.
When Mr Abramovich arrived at Chelsea in 2003, it is well known we had not won the league championship since 1955, but it is less known that we had not won the FA Youth Cup since 1961. Not only that, we had not so much as reached the semi-finals since Ray Wilkins featured in the class of 1973, while it had been six years since John Terry’s age group had made it as far as the quarter-finals. The whole club trained at the inadequate Harlington ground, next to Heathrow Airport.
Since then, having moved to Cobham, we have won the Youth Cup twice, reaching three finals in the last four, and four from the last six, with a brand new Academy facility to rival the state-of-the-art first team building next door.
The hard work has come from Bath (pictured below centre) and his Academy team, which has been well supported by Mr Abramovich and his board over the past decade. Bath has been with the club for double that time, arriving in 1993.
‘I remember I was at Stamford Bridge and heard Mr Abramovich would be taking over,’ he recalled to Chelsea TV. ‘As a member of staff and as a supporter I was quite excited. The club for many years had financial problems and to get someone in who was going to be very wealthy and invest in the club was an exciting time.
‘I remember speaking to Trevor Birch who was chief executive at the time, who said the new owner was wealthy but also passionate and enthusiastic about football, and that for me was a big thing.
‘Six months to a year in, we had appointed Jose Mourinho and Peter Kenyon had come in as chief executive. I had some early meetings with them and Peter had appointed me as Academy manager. When Peter started to talk to me about the plans the club had in terms of building the facility and investing in the youth programme, it was really exciting. I remember having an interview and explaining how I would like to see it done.
‘It was fairly quick that we looked to move from Harlington to Cobham,’ Bath continued. ‘I remember being here when it was old university grounds. It was wooden sheds, more or less, and a building that was changing rooms downstairs and a social club upstairs. The office we had was two desks at Stamford Bridge.
‘A year in we were drawing up plans, looking at other clubs across Europe and England, seeing how other academies and facilities had developed. We came back to our board and said I and the staff I work with have got this idea. We presented it and had the support from there. It was fantastic.
‘But it’s not just about facilities, we had to improve our coaching philosophy and we also had to improve the quality of player. With the whole thing coming together now, I hope people see a huge improvement.’
Success has certainly been achieved, but there remains work to do with the aim of graduating more players from Academy to first team. Last season we saw Nathan Ake and Lucas Piazon make debuts and appear on the bench, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andreas Christensen played in our end-of-season trip to America.
Mr Abramovich, explained Bath, remains committed to that vision.
‘He has shown support for the programme in many ways, backing up everything our staff do and coming to some of our big games. He also shows a passion for young players out on loan and for young players being in and around the first team. In the many conversations I’ve had with him I know getting young players eventually through to our first team would mean a lot to him.
‘We have seen him down here on Sunday mornings coming to watch the games. I remember standing at an Under-13 game, and seeing him twitching every time we got near the opposition goal.
‘He’s been to several Youth Cup games, and there is a genuine passion and support for all the teams within the football club.
‘I have a couple of meetings a year discussing how the programme is going and presenting to Mr Abramovich, listening to his views and sharing ideas about development, because his knowledge is very good.
‘He is extremely passionate. He will question you and put you in that environment where you are having a really healthy debate about youth football and development going forward. But he does listen, and if we end up agreeing then the support comes in.
‘The big thing that drives him is when he sees the teams play the right way, play with passion, play with creativity, well organised, enjoying it and expressing themselves. All those things really drive him, that’s what he likes to see.’