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The Young Generation: Centring on development

After four successive FA Youth Cup final appearances and three triumphs in that time, the Chelsea Academy is rightly considered one of the best in the country.

Last term’s victory over Manchester City in the final was complemented by our Under-19s being crowned champions of Europe at their level with success in the UEFA Youth League, increasing the stature of our youth development programme on the continental stage.

A number of graduates from recent Youth Cup triumphs are now progressing to forge professional football careers, with Nathaniel Chalobah, Todd Kane, Josh McEachran, John Swift, Lewis Baker, Lucas Piazon, Nathan Ake, Andreas Christensen, Dominic Solanke, Izzy Brown and Jeremie Boga all currently plying their trade in one of Europe’s top leagues or the English second tier.

Meanwhile, Jamal Blackman and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are part of our first team squad this season, with the latter recently involved as one of six Chelsea players for the England Under-21s’ latest round of international qualifiers.

The English representation within our Academy setup is often underplayed; during the first international window of the current campaign in August, Chelsea provided 13 per cent of the England players from Under-16s up to Under-21s (17 out of 126). That figure surpassed every other club in the land, with Manchester City’s 12 players the next best contribution.

A vast proportion of those players were scouted and recruited from the south-east of England, advancing through one of our development centres, the little-known but incredibly important cogs within the youth development structure.

The Academy now operates 11 of these centres across the capital and south-east of the country, with their aim being the transition of local players into our youth development programme at the Under-9 age group, the earliest a player can be signed. Many will be spotted from local grassroots games and train at one of the centres for up to two years from the age of six.

Recruitment at these early ages continues to increase in significance, with many in the game now highlighting the importance of developing a player through a consistent programme throughout their formative years, working within the same structured philosophy and with coaches who adhere to that style throughout the pathway.

These younger ages are also considered the most competitive in terms of attracting the best players due to clubs being unable to sign a player before they begin their Under-9 year.

‘It is so important for an Academy to sign the best local players at Under-9,’ says Jim Fraser, the Academy’s assistant head of youth development. ‘There will always be a handful of outstanding players across London at that age and if you don’t sign the majority into your programme at Under-9, it’s obvious that you’re going to be playing catch-up.

‘Looking back, you can see the significance of that in the case of Dominic Solanke, Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori and Ruben Sammut. We signed them at the earliest age in 2005 but there was a lot of competition because they were arguably the best at their age in the area. We managed to sign them as Chelsea players, have kept them in our programme for the last 10 years and they’re still seen as some of the best at their age group.

‘We’ve recognised the importance of the work of the development centre programme for over 10 years now but what we have found in the last few years is that every other club in London is catching up and working out how crucial it is as well. That makes the job increasingly difficult.’

Eight of the 14-strong 2015/16 intake of new scholars are graduates of the development centre, following in the footsteps of Abraham, Solanke, Sammut and Tomori from the previous year and from Loftus-Cheek, Houghton, McEachran, Jack Cork, Sam Hutchinson and Liam Bridcutt prior to that.

Not only does the long association between player and club aid development, it also helps to foster a group mentality among teammates that can last a decade, culminating in involvement and success together in Youth Cup football. The class of 2014 were in the same side as Under-9s, where they were managed by current youth team manager Joe Edwards.

After the Youth Cup victory over City in May last year, Edwards paid special tribute to the close-knit bonds within his squad.

‘We have a group of players who have grown up together; some have been here since Under-9s while others went to school together in our full-time programme at Cobham, so to be able to achieve this success with a group of close friends does make it extra special for them,’ he said after a 2-1 Stamford Bridge victory made it 5-2 on aggregate in the final.

‘I know the boys and their families well and knowing that I can trust them on the pitch makes my job a lot easier.’

Seven of the starters in our opening Youth Cup tie of this season, last month’s 6-1 victory over Huddersfield Town, were development centre graduates, indicating that the work of the programme shows no sign of diminishing in significance. Similarly, the three Under-16s to have featured so far for the youth team in 2015/16 were also all beneficiaries of the programme.

The onus on identifying young talent and inducting them through development centres is only likely to increase in importance in the face of growing local competition. However, the benefits of such an approach continue to stand out as Academy age group after age group features an increasing proportion of these graduates of the development centre programme.

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