THE YOUNG GENERATION
There is plenty that was new to consider when looking back on 2012/13 for the development age group between our Under-18 youth team and first-team level.
What was previously the reserve league had already moved towards a more nationwide competition in recent years, but in the season just completed it became the Barclays Under-21 Premier League.
In coordination with the Under-18 league competition, clubs had their academies assessed and the highest ranked from north to south were split into three groups in the first half of a two-stage league competition. Performance in that determined the make-up of the groups for the second half with play-offs to decide the champions at the end.
A degree of over-age player involvement was permitted, but one of the main aims in the reshaped league was to have the best young players nationwide competing against the best.
In addition to the Under-21 League, Chelsea entered an Under-19 side in the NextGen Series which was in its second season, giving Champions League-style European football experience to many of our young players as they progressed to the final.
Dermot Drummy, who was manager for both the squads, saw the Under-21 campaign start off with a high level of quality. Players of the calibre of Lucas Piazon, Patrick Bamford, Nathan Ake, Thorgan Hazard and Nathaniel Chalobah competed in an opening match against Manchester City which although goalless, was a very good game.
There followed one of the highlights of the season as Wolves were beaten 5-0 in front of a good crowd at Stamford Bridge.
'It is nice to play at the Bridge in front of the fans as this is as real as it gets,' Drummy says. 'It gave the lads that experience against what was, even though the scoreline may not suggest it, a tough side. In the early part of the season that was encouraging.
'As players went on loan on their own personal journeys, our performance in the league became a little watered down,' he reports.
'Piazon's loan to Malaga has been successful, Chalobah's to Watford has been successful, Toddy Kane has had a successful loan at Blackburn but at Preston before that he wasn't very successful, and others have gone out and would probably have stayed had we had a higher calibre team in the Under-21 League.
'So we will review that, along with [Academy manager] Neil Bath, because we want to create a stronger environment to get our players ready for the next level, otherwise they are always going to see a loan move as best.
'The changes did make the league more competitive at the beginning but sometimes when the boys go on loan and you bring younger players in to learn, it suggests we are not going for the league, it suggests players going on personal development journeys. We have to look at when we let players go on loan.'
Drummy indicates there may be some changes to the Under-21 league format next season which, along with the competition gaining more publicity as enters its second season and the individual clubs perfecting their plans at this level, means he anticipates an improving competition.
The Chelsea Under-21s finished the first phase of the league before Christmas with a run of four wins and a draw but, coming third in our seven-team group, narrowly missed out on a place in the Elite Group for phase two of the season.
Instead we went into Group One and started with three straight wins against Fulham, Middlesbrough and Sunderland.
'We then had a dip in form,' says Drummy, 'possibly because the NextGen and the FA Youth Cup were taking their toll. The same group of players was playing across three competitions and while that was great experience, we were asking a lot of the boys. Some others then went on loan for their own personal development so we had to start over again with some of the younger boys coming in and playing at the higher level.'
The Under-21 league season finished brightly with a Chelsea side containing several 16- and 17-year-olds winning two and drawing two of the last four matches, three of them away from home.
As Drummy mentioned, the new league combined with other competitions meant that players were not short of competitive matches, which has been the case for some individuals in past seasons.
'The NextGen journey was fantastic,' he notes, 'including the lads getting the experience of playing Barcelona and winning away, and playing Juventus in what was probably the best performance I have been involved with in youth development. Then we beat Arsenal in the semi-final before eventually succumbing to Villa. We learnt about winning and we learnt about losing.'
Top appearance maker for the Under-21s was goalkeeper Jamal Blackman with the top outfielder Lewis Baker. The keeper for the NextGen games was primarily Mitchell Beeney.
'Jamal has been training with the first team predominantly and playing for us,' reports Drummy, 'and Mitchell has made very good progress playing above his age group. I am very pleased with him.
'Lewis Baker was probably the outstanding player of the season for us, playing almost every game, getting recognition with the England Under-19 international side and training with the first team.
'Nathan Ake has made the transition to where he is now regarded as a first team player. He was training with them on a daily basis, with us sometimes getting him for a game. He has made the best progress in terms of achievement.'
Centre-forward Islam Feruz was top-scorer in both the Under-21 and Under-19 competitions.
'Islam did well as a first year scoring that amount of goals before an injury. He has taken time to come back from that but he has performed admirably and has become a Scotland Under-21 international.
'Andreas Christensen has been a high-level performer and Jeremie Boga is an Under-16 who has come in and performed, and the level of the performances from the Next Gen group has been fantastic so we are really pleased with that.'
Two of the Under-21 squad are released this summer, both defenders. Aziz Deen-Conteh was a regular in the FA Youth Cup-winning side in 2010 while Archange Nkumu played a part in lifting that same trophy two years later.
'They have been great for us and are very nice lads and we wish them well for the future,' says Drummy.
'They now have to be very tough mentally. Sometimes a player getting a 'no' from a professional club means they reassess themselves and see where they have to work and they can come out of it stronger.'
The manager also assesses some of the players who left temporarily on loan.
'Nathaniel Chalobah playing at Wembley is as close as you can get to a fantastic loan,' he says. 'We have watched him, he has matured, he is a lovely lad and gets to our first team games as much as he can. He has progressed a lot on loan
'I spoke with the Blackburn staff about Toddy Kane and they were very pleased with him. Toddy loved it there and says it is very well run so that has been a progressive loan. He had the great experience of helping in a relegation fight.
'George Saville had to fight for his place at Millwall and sometimes loans don't work out in terms of playing time, but you learn another side of the game in training to win three points and fighting to get into a team. He will probably go on loan again and we will try to select somewhere he can hopefully get games.'
Summing up the season as a whole, Drummy says:
'The bottom line is our elite players have been tested this year and we have seen players on loan make progression. The Academy is playing a wonderful style of attacking football, the culture in the building that Neil Bath has set is outstanding and it is onwards and upwards. What we haven't quite got yet is that player pathway into our first team.
'We are making progress as an Academy and there is a lot of hard work going on, but we have to get a player in the first team and we are working hard at that.'