Yesterday on the official Chelsea website, head of youth development Neil Bath looked back on a successful season on the pitch for Academy sides of many ages. Today he completes his review of 2013/14 by talking about managing the busy end of the campaign, a young England triumph and a handful of players who are leaving…
More competitions last season, and an expanded Reserve/Under-21 league in recent years, naturally means more games for the older players in Chelsea’s Academy which has clear benefits, not least for a player going out on loan to the first team at a Football League club who no longer suddenly moves from playing 20 games a season to maybe 50, as was once the case.
However there is still a balance to be struck with developing players which is carefully considered by Neil Bath and his staff. It is important not to lose too much time for improvement on the training pitch as game time increases significantly. Added to that is the fact 80 or 90 per cent of Chelsea’s older Academy players also play junior international games.
‘The schedule becomes really hectic and this is something that the Premier League academies working with the FA are very conscious about,’ says Bath. ‘We need to keep looking at the calendar to get the balance of development versus game time.’
At youth team level last season, 20 schoolboys were given games including eight Under-15s. Eight Under-16s made 10 or more appearances for what is nominally an Under-18 side and that links to the Under-21 squad containing many younger players too. At the season’s climax there was a degree of juggling needed over a few days to maximise the chances of success in the FA Youth Cup and the Under-21 League play-offs.
‘It was quite a challenge for all of us,’ acknowledges Bath, ‘when players are jumping between age groups and lots of these players are also in their final year of education and we have a hectic games programme that they all want to be involved in.
‘It is our job but it does rely on everyone working as a team to ultimately develop bright young footballers who are respectful and can express themselves on the field, but also recognise their role as a Chelsea professional and the importance of their education.
‘I’m pretty sure we would have been close to, if not the youngest Under-21 team in the country last season, and the youngest team in the FA Youth Cup, and the youngest team in the Under-18s League. It is pleasing to have the success we’ve had with so many youngsters playing, but our belief is you have to develop individuals and if they have cleared one hurdle you have to keep raising the bar, and that is often by giving the next challenge of playing for the next age group up.’
The opening of a full-time school at Cobham has helped involve the Under-15s and Under-16s more regularly in youth team training and consequently in that squad’s matches.
‘I’m not going to say the school has been a huge success until the exam results but I am hoping the grades will be higher than was expected of the boys when they left their previous schools to join our school. Trophies are nice but if we can get them through their exams and also win the trophies, and we get enough of them enjoying first-team training experience, that is all-round success.’
One triumph at the season’s end which the Academy could sit back and enjoy was England Under-17s winning the European Championships, beating the Netherlands on penalties in the final in Malta. Dominic Solanke (below left) and Izzy Brown (below right) were prominent in the England attack.
‘Some of our staff went out to the game, we had others away at the Hong Kong Soccer Sevens but there was a group of us together who went out for a meal and watched the game and everyone involved was proud of Izzy and Dominic, and the England team and staff,’ says Bath.
‘They played decent football and it is fantastic to see an England team become European champions. I do believe there is a lot of talent across all the clubs at the younger ages and let’s hope they get their opportunities across all the clubs in the future.’
It is a natural part of Chelsea Academy life that while some boys are looking forward to next season with the club, for others it is time to seek new challenges.
‘Although we talk a lot about positives and successes, it is unfortunately also the time of year when we can’t forget the boys we have to release,’ says Bath.
‘We would like to wish the boys well who have been with us a long, long time – Adam Nditi, Danny Pappoe, Milan Lalkovic, Ambrose Gnahore and Chike Kandi.
‘What is important is we do ask those boys to stay in contact and should they be struggling to find clubs in the future, we will certainly be here to help them in every way.
‘An example is four of the players we released last year we continued to employ in other roles with the Academy for a further year provided they also carried out some education studies. They didn’t go from Chelsea to maybe needing to get part-time jobs that wouldn’t allow them to do their studies – so our support consists of programmes such as that.
‘When you are developing talent, it is about recruitment staff identifying that talent. It is then about our people at the club inducting and developing the talent and then unfortunately some players get released, but a very important part of that programme is how we release people. It is important to us like winning is.’
Also a significant part of the Academy programme are the players who spend time away from Chelsea on loan. There were notable success stories on the pitch last season with George Saville a regular as Brentford won promotion from League One and Patrick Bamford’s goals helping Derby into the Championship play-off final, denied at the last by QPR.
‘We certainly say well done to those and there are many who performed well on loan last season,’ notes Bath.
‘Eddie Newton has a role for us with Steve Holland, watching and monitoring these players very carefully indeed. We certainly don’t forget the players who go out on loan and experience the real thing.’