UNDER-21 PREVIEW: GOALSCORING SWIFT LOOKS FORWARD TO HAMMERS TIE
While recent weeks have seen the first team face the challenges of a hectic match schedule, with four Barclays Premier League games in nine days, the festive season has been quieter for those involved in the Under-21 side and the Academy.
Dermot Drummy's team were last in action on December 16, while Adi Viveash's Under-18s rounded off their calendar year with a 6-0 win over Reading four days before Christmas, and both groups have enjoyed a couple of weeks' break since.
However, January is shaping up to be a busy month across both age groups, with eight games in the diary, starting with Monday's visit of West Ham United to Aldershot, in the last eight of the inaugural Under-21 Premier League Cup, a game live on Chelsea TV.
The young Hammers defeated Bristol City at the beginning of last month to set up the London derby, while Chelsea won 4-0 at Cardiff City, with Lewis Baker, Jeremie Boga and Alex Kiwomya on the scoresheet.
Midfielder John Swift, who also featured in that game in South Wales, was pleased with the way he and his team-mates performed in the Welsh capital. Speaking to the official Chelsea website, he said: 'It's always hard going away to a team like Cardiff but to come away with a win was the main thing on our minds.'
'It makes a difference playing at a Premier League stadium as well because the pitch is always a bit better, especially at the moment with the bad weather. The pitch can make a big difference for us because we like to play football so when it is nice then it makes that a bit easier.'
With the semi-finals in sight, the competition represents a chance for Drummy's boys to win some silverware and, after the disappointment of defeat in both the NextGen Series and FA Youth Cup finals last term, the desire is there to go one step further this campaign.
Yet West Ham will present a stern test and the players know from previous encounters that the game is likely to be tight, open and entertaining. Swift remembers those past meetings, including a memorable Youth Cup victory at Staines in February 2012, and reckons this clash has all the ingredients to be another great contest.
'Everybody knows it is a massive game,' he said. 'Every time we play West Ham it's close and there's been last-minute goals and drama so of course it's a big game. Chelsea against West Ham has always been massive, even for the youth team and the Under-21s.'
The two sides most recently met in a league game at Aldershot at the start of November, when Nathan Ake's last-minute goal earned the young Blues a share of the points. Swift was also among the goalscorers that evening and his prolific form in front of goal this campaign has certainly impressed. He has 10 goals in 16 appearances so far, making him the top goalscorer at his level, and he feels it was his blistering start to pre-season that set him up for such a strong first half of 2013/14.
'Pre-season was actually a big surprise for me in terms of my goalscoring because I only scored four goals in the whole of last season. Going into pre-season I definitely had goals on my mind and scoring in every game during it gave me some real confidence in that respect going into this new season.'
A central midfield player throughout much of his time at the club, since joining at Under-14 level, Swift has also found himself used out wide this season by manager Drummy, and he is simply happy in whichever position he can to contribute to the team.
'I have spoken to Dermot a lot about it,' he explained. 'I prefer to play in the middle because I think I'm a central midfielder but Dermot changes the team every now and again and if I'm out on the wing then I'm happy to play there. I like to get forward, run with the ball and get at defenders, and scoring goals has been my thing this season, so I'm happy.
'I was a bit disappointed with myself last season. I didn't think I was playing that well to get into the Under-21s starting team but this season I've done a lot better. I think the main reason has been adding goals to my game and that can certainly help to change any manager's mind.'
Swift's improvement in front of goal has been remarkable and he is quick to credit the advice of a familiar first team player in helping him develop that side of his midfield game this season.
'Dermot mentioned to me at the end of last season about going and speaking to a first team player and so I went and spent some time with Frank Lampard. He talked to me about how he's always turning his head, always scoring goals and he stressed the most important thing was to get in the box every time the ball went forward or out wide.
'Afterwards I went and watched clips of him playing and I've continued to constantly watch his game to try and pick things up. In terms of goalscoring midfielders there's not many better people to go and talk to and learn from than Frank.'
Aside from the more immediate aim of claiming a place in the last four of the Under-21 Cup competition, Swift has also set his sights on continued progress at Chelsea throughout 2014.
'I think my goals for 2014 would just be the same as every other player involved in the Under-21s; to train with the first team and then to get on the bench for a cup game or even just to travel with the matchday squad.
'It's been really good travelling with the first team to the Champions League away games [the Under-19 UEFA Youth League group stage mirrored the first team's matches]. Jose Mourinho comes round and shakes everyone's hand and just makes us all feel a part of it so that's been a really good experience.'
The Under-21s take on West Ham at Aldershot's Electrical Services Stadium on Monday 6 January in the quarter-finals of the Under-21 Premier League Cup, with kick-off at 7.05pm. Tickets are £3 adults and £1 concessions, while season ticket holders will have free entry on production of their valid 2013/14 season ticket. The game will also be broadcast live on Chelsea TV.
- By Sam Poplett