Our Under-18s continue their defence of the FA Youth Cup with a fifth round trip to AFC Wimbledon this week, live on Chelsea TV.
It is the first meeting between the two sides in the youth competition since 1997/98, when the young Blues triumphed over the Dons 3-1 following a replay at Plough Lane.
A regular fixture in that side was an 18-year-old Jon Harley, who featured in every game as the team reached the quarter-finals. While Joe Edwards’s present-day youngsters will secure a place in the last eight for the seventh successive year if they beat Wimbledon on Tuesday, such a run was something of a major achievement in the mid-1990s; the run in 1997/98 was the only time in 21 years that a Chelsea Under-18 side had progressed so far.
‘We had a really good run that year,’ says Harley as he reminisces with the official Chelsea website. ‘The youth team back then was not as strong as it is now so getting to the quarter-finals was quite a big achievement. We had some really good performances, away at Tranmere and against Portsmouth at Fratton Park.
‘I remember that Portsmouth game really well because the TV cameras were there and I managed to score after eight seconds. This was back at a time when Sky Sports News was only on for 30 minutes in the evening, rather than its own channel, so I was really excited about sitting down to watch it when I got home. Unfortunately, the club parted company with the manager Ruud Gullit that evening so I was rather overshadowed!
‘Even though we lost the quarter-final against Blackburn, it proved something of a springboard for me into the first team. Gianluca Vialli took over from Gullit and he watched the game at Stamford Bridge, after which I got my chance in the first team.’
A team-mate of Harley in that youth team side was a certain John Terry, an age group younger and often deployed further forward during those early years.
‘John played in midfield back then but he wasn’t really a first choice in the team. He got an opportunity at centre-back and just never looked back from there but you can see in his game that he’s got the capabilities of a midfielder. It’s incredible to look at what he’s achieved from there and that has all been down to him being completely dedicated to working hard every day.’
Harley’s football journey has seen him return to the Chelsea Academy as a coach. He is in charge of the Under-15s and the current crop of Youth Cup players are those he worked with regularly just two years ago.
‘In my first full year coaching at the Academy we had the likes of Mason Mount, Jacob Maddox, Ike Ugbo, Nathan Baxter, Jared Thompson and Trevoh Chalobah in my age group. It’s great to see them stepping up now and performing on the big stage, knowing that you can feel a part of their development. Some of their performances in the last round at Manchester United were brilliant.’
Harley played more than 40 times for our first team, collecting an FA Cup winner’s medal in 2000 in the last final to be played at the old Wembley. He had been a reserve team regular as he sought to win a place in the first team and therefore something of a veteran of the Kingsmeadow Stadium, the venue for this week’s Youth Cup clash.
‘I remember it well,’ he says when asked about the ground in Kingston that our reserve side called home for many years. ‘I must have racked up about 200 appearances at that stadium, though whether that’s a good feat or not I’m not too sure!
‘I also played there once when I was at Portsmouth and the ground was packed out, which made for a great atmosphere because everyone is so close to the pitch. The pressure of playing in an environment like that is great for development so hopefully we see plenty of supporters come down this week.
‘The Youth Cup is such a great competition to be a part of; you can tell around the Academy building when the games are coming up because you can sense the focus and the winning mentality kick in. It was definitely a stepping stone for me into the first team and hopefully it can be the same for the current generation.’
Chelsea Under-18s versus AFC Wimbledon takes place at the Cherry Red Records Stadium tomorrow (Tuesday 9 February). Kick-off is at 7.05pm and the game is being screened live on Chelsea TV. Supporters can purchase tickets online here, priced at £5 for adults and £2 for children. There will be coverage throughout the evening on our official Twitter @chelseafc
-Jon Harley is currently in training to run the London Marathon 2016, raising money for our global charity partner Plan International. Plan are one of the oldest and largest children’s development charities, supporting more than 80 million young people and their communities in 51 countries through education projects, improving healthcare and campaigning for children’s rights. You can support Jon and donate here.