‘Trophies are great, but first-team is Holy Grail'

Sunday 18 Jan 2015
Chelsea won The FA Youth Cup in 2014

The academy at Chelsea is an impressive facility - a place built for success with attention to detail. And much has been achieved in recent years.

In one room on the second floor a group of Under-17s are busy preparing IAPs – Individual Action Plans - in which they study footage of themselves and senior players in their position.

They will then present their findings to coaches and families. A sort of end of term assessment, if you will.

Jordan Houghton, Chelsea

Chelsea youngster Jordan Houghton during The Youth Cup Final


Adjacent to that, in another room, a group of analysts are busy preparing video reports on each of the academy’s youngsters, combined with footage to send home to the players’ families.

On the wall are the words: “A world class learning and development environment programme that fosters a culture of excellence, pride and unity – that nurtures young players so that they achieve maximum potential.”

Without a FA Youth Cup Final appearance in 54 years, they have now lifted the famous trophy three times in the past four years, and were runners-up in 2008 and 2013.

Their Under-21s were Premier League champions in 2013-14 but, according to Neil Bath, their head of youth development, the success of a project a decade in the making is about to be judged.

“The Holy Grail will always be to get players into our first-team,” he said in an exclusive interview with TheFA.com.

“Then the second goal will be to produce as many professional footballers as we can.

“Getting players through the academy and into the first-team is what we’re all about.

“If we win tournaments on the way that help their development, then great, but it’s not our priority.”

Of course history tells us the path from elite youth player to senior professional is never a given.

And Bath is adamant that Chelsea will see more youth products make their way into the senior Stamford Bridge squad.

Chelsea FA Youth Cup winners

Chelsea have been in FA Youth Cup Finals on a regular basis of late

“I do believe that we have young players that can be future Chelsea players,” he says.

“I’m strongly passionate about that because I think we’ve got the best players we’ve ever had.

“If it doesn’t happen now over the next few years then it will be an interesting period – because the whole footballing fraternity will need to look at this.”

Bath makes a point that the issue of internal player progression is more widespread.

Of the famous Manchester United ‘Class of 92’ youth group, only four of the squad in the FA Youth Cup Final second leg went on to become first team regulars. And that was considered an anomaly of overwhelming success.

The 18-strong England U17 squad that won the 2010 European Championship, featured Ross Barkley who has been capped at senior international level.

Just three others – Saido Berahino, Connor Wickham and Andre Wisdom – could safely be considered Premier League regulars.

And Bath says finding a way to bridge the gap between youth team and first team is something everyone has to work together on.

“I think this is a football issue,” he added.

“There are a whole number of reasons that are well publicised as to why young players don’t get that opportunity.

“It’s a much more professional environment than it was ten or 15 years ago.

“Players like Ryan Giggs, John Terry, Frank Lampard – they can all play on a lot longer these days.

“There’s also a worldwide global market that the Premier League attracts, so the game has changed. But of course it’s a big challenge for all the big clubs.”

Dominic Solanke makes Chelsea debut in Champions League

Dominic Solanke makes Chelsea debut in Champions League

Jose Mourinho, in his second spell has spoken of his commitment to nurturing this group of youngster into first team regulars at Chelsea.

In the summer of 2014 he said of a talented trio of standout youngsters at the club that if they are not playing senior international football in the next few years he would hold himself “responsible”.

The three, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Lewis Baker and Dominic Solanke, have all tasted first-team action, while several other academy players are training with Mourinho’s men on a daily basis.

And despite the challenges Bath and other youth development officers in clubs across the country face, he ended by speaking of the excitement the current crop bring with them - and the pride he will feel if they do progress.

“Our vision is to get one a year into the squad,” he added.

“We currently have three players training every day in the squad, we have a lot of players out on loan playing League football and we feel that we’re going in the right direction.

“When you work so hard and you know them as kids and know their families for so long, and you see the hours the staff put in, and you see a boy get on – it can be quite emotional because you’re very proud.

“It’s the ultimate thing we’re all trying to go towards.

“There’s so many hard working youth development officers – and I don’t just mean at Chelsea – in this country that put so much time and effort into it.

“In years gone by you might have been a bit envious of a competitor getting a young player in.

“Now my mindset is ‘good luck to you – you get one in and give him a chance’. You do feel that way and I know my colleagues do.

“It’s the same when they represent national teams, and it can be the feeling of a parent seeing their child graduate – you’re very proud.”

In part two of the Neil Bath interview, he talks about the crucial relationships between club academies and national team coaches – and reveals how they work together to bring the best out of the young players.

By Jamie Reid Senior Writer