At the press conference preceding Chelsea’s final Champions League group match against Sporting Lisbon, José Mourinho, like a magician drawing back the curtain for the grand reveal, presented to the world his latest unbelievable marvel; a Chelsea academy product.
Since Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea from Ken Bates in 2003, to say that graduates of the Chelsea youth system getting a chance in the first team has been a rare occurrence at Stamford Bridge would be a huge understatement. The Russian has become famed for his itchy trigger-finger when it comes to firing managers, and so manager after manager has preferred to use the considerable transfer budget available to them, rather than taking the risk of trying to bed in a new youth player.
This is a club whose fans love to joke “we ain’t got no history”, but what history the club did have as a side bringing through local players has been largely desecrated in the search for success.
While some Chelsea youth players have gone on to make successful careers at other teams, really the last academy graduate to get promoted and make a career in the Chelsea first team was 34 year old Mr Chelsea John Terry (who himself followed the well worn path to Chelsea from West Ham).
So in a week in which Manchester City unveiled their own new £200million joint-purpose tycoon PR exercise and academy centre, it’s surprising to see the news of a single youth product getting on to the pitch in Chelsea’s match against Sporting so widely fêted in the press. Even the usually decent Barney Ronay at the Guardian fawned over Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s seven minutes as if this was something to be impressed by. Chelsea too have spent considerable money on their academy, but that has proved to mean nothing without long-term vision.
Some managers are of course more interested in bringing through young talent than others. The last player to get anything like a crack at it at Chelsea was Ryan Bertrand, and the left-back has only made 56 total appearances for the West London club in all competitions. Sent out on numerous loans (Bournemouth, Oldham, Norwich, Reading, and Nottingham Forest), Bertrand was given his chance by Carlo Ancelotti from 2011, making mostly substitute league appearances along with some starts in cup competitions.
When we played our charade
We were like children posing
Playing at games, acting out names
Guessing the parts we played
– Henry Mancini – Charade
Bertrand was always considered as an understudy to Ashley Cole, and even made his Champions League debut in the 2012 final against Bayern Munich, starting in the left of midfield to protect Ashley Cole from the Bayern right-flank combination of Lahm and Robben as Chelsea defended themselves to glory.
Bertrand had the busiest season of his Chelsea career under Roberto Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez in the following 2012-13 season, making 38 appearances in all competitions. Some apprenticeship for Bertrand, but when José Mourinho returned as manager for the 2013-14 season, his chances dried up. Bertrand made only a single league appearance before being loaned out to Aston Villa in January 2014. This season Ryan Bertrand has been loaned out to Southampton, where he is playing regularly in the best defence of the Premier League season to date.
It’s surely not for a lack of talent that no-one has made it through to the Chelsea first team – Chelsea won last season’s Under 21 Premier League, the Reserve League in 2011, and the FA Youth Cup in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
Fate seemed to pull the strings
I turned and you were gone
While from the darkened wings
The music box played on
– Fantômas – Charade
Plenty of Chelsea youth players have been hyped as the ‘next big thing’, but few have had anything like a chance in the first team. Michael Mancienne was highly thought of but only made six appearances for Chelsea and now plays for Nottingham Forest.
Josh McEachran got a few chances at a very young age under Carlo Ancelotti but has since suffered the perma-loan treatment that befalls so many Chelsea prospects before they eventually leave the club. Since 2012, McEachran has been out on loan to Swansea, Middlesbrough, Watford, Wigan and is this season on loan at Vitesse Arnhem. Still only 21, there is still plenty of time left for McEachran to get his chance at a top-club, but the recent record suggests that it’s extremely unlikely that chance will be at Chelsea.
It’s hard to believe that none of the young players at Chelsea’s disposal have been good enough for a chance to play. The success of young players once they have moved on from Chelsea, like Romelu Lukaku or Daniel Sturridge to give just two recent examples, is testament to that.
It’s loany at the top
Chelsea are perhaps the most well known of several clubs making something of an abuse of a loan system originally created for a different purpose. It’s that abuse of the loan system that is perhaps becoming the most disturbing aspect of Chelsea’s youth business.
Chelsea have in recent years been snapping up young talents from around Europe on high wages and immediately loaning them out to certain ‘friendly’ teams – teams such as the aforementioned Vitesse Arnhem who have become in principle little more than feeder teams to the Chelsea machine.
Chelsea this season have 25 players out on loan (according to wikipedia) – or pretty much a full squad’s worth. Three of those loan players (Josh McEachran, Bertrand Traoré and Wallace) are at Vitesse Arnhem, while a further three (Jamal Blackman, Kenneth Omeruo, and Patrick Bamford) are with Middlesborough.
In some ways this benefits the destination clubs as they have access to young talents they would not normally have, but does it benefit the players? Few of them go on to play for Chelsea, and it seems more of an exercise in increasing financial revenues (and thereby passing Financial Fair Play regulations) from the eventual transfer fees than it is in grooming professional footballers in the best possible way for their future careers.
Teams don’t even need to bring a talent on into the first team to make a profit on them. Some of these players are registered to these clubs for years and loaned out to various smaller clubs, where if they impress someone on loan, they can be moved on at a profit without ever getting a sniff of first team action for their parent club.
Clubs have shown that pretty much anything is fair game when it comes to increasing revenues in recent years as football becomes a bigger and bigger business. There are differences of opinion on whether this is a good or a bad thing, but when clubs are trading players purely to take advantage of their increasing value, never looking to involve them in much football for the parent club, it takes on a disturbing dimension.
Young players would be well served by staying longer at smaller clubs rather than moving immediately to a big team where there is less chance of progressing to the senior side and getting the playing time that will make them a better player. At a team like Chelsea, they are but one of many youth prospects, homegrown or imported, that pass in and out of the clubs hands every season. Few of them are ever given the chance to prove themselves on the pitch.
The financial rewards on offer to move to a big side are considerable, in addition to the dream of pushing through to the first team at the top level. With these carrots dangled in front of the noses of them and their representatives, it is understandable why many young players choose to move to the big sides so early.
Meanwhile consider an example like Youri Tielemans, who despite interest from a number of top-tier European clubs, decided to stay at Anderlecht. Last season, Tielemans became the youngest Belgian to ever play in the Champions League. Tieleman played in all six games of Anderlecht’s group stage matches this season (starting five), and will surely feature further in the Europa League. He is still only 17 years old.
No way José
If you don’t bring kids through the academy, the best thing is to close the academy. If the kids are not good enough or the work not good enough, and you don’t bring kids through, then close the door and use the money to buy players. You need to prove the academy works well and is worth it. But it’s only possible if the first-team manager stays for a long time, which in this club in the last 10 years was not possible.
– José Mourinho
José Mourinho himself there with a snappy soundbite about closing down the academy if it does not produce the quality of players which the first team squad requires, but like his waivering views on defensively oriented football and time-wasting, you’re better off judging him by what he does, and not by what he says.
Players do not come out of an academy as the finished product, and need to be eased into a first team squad where they can understudy more experienced players and learn their trade. In other words, it is not only the academy which produces a top class player, it is the youth system at the club which educates them and then nurtures them through to the top level.
Mourinho himself referred to this process, but in doing so exonerated himself for neglecting the youth setup during his first spell at the club, and with typical bravado and self-denial, declared thrusting this new youngster before the lights of a Champions League press conference some sort of masterstroke.
Imagine next week if there’s a different first-team manager with different ideas. Some product, almost an added product, becomes an empty product and you start everything again.
– José Mourinho
Exactly José. Just ask Ryan Bertrand or Romelu Lukaku.
“Oh what a hit we made, we came on next to closing”
And so to Ruben Loftus-Cheek. This is at last a bonafide Chelsea boy, raised from a young age within their youth teams. But his appearance brought so much fanfare and spectacle for what was in the end seven minutes on the pitch. Seven minutes, in a game meaningless to Chelsea as they’d already won their group. Seven minutes at the end of a game in which Chelsea were already two goals up after 15 minutes.
Of course everyone wishes Loftus-Cheek well in his career, but his play time was a charade, an orchestrated public relations stunt from Mourinho to make it look like his focus is on youth. The truth is that the line towards a place in the first team for players like Loftus-Cheek is long, and filled with expensive imported stars as well as other youth hopefuls.
It’s wrong to praise Mourinho the first times he gives a young lad seven minutes in a dead match. Otherwise where are the other minutes for Loftus-Cheek, where are the chances for other youth players. Praise Mourinho when he nurtures one or more players through to the first team. Only then will his actions speak instead of empty words in press conferences for star-struck journalists.
José Mourinho would have you believe that he never resorts to route one ‘eighteenth century football’, that he is always sportsmanlike in his conduct and that his teams are above time-wasting. Now José Mourinho would have you believe that he is serious about bringing through youth players. Until you see Chelsea youth players regularly pulling on the Chelsea shirt to play in big matches, don’t believe a word of it. Until they play more than seven minutes, it’s all a charade.