As we reflect on the 2016/17 season and begin to look forward, the official Chelsea website sat down with our head of youth development Neil Bath to hear his thoughts on another memorable campaign for our Academy…
The trophy cabinet in our Academy at Cobham is full with every notable piece of silverware it can win in development football. The Under-18 Premier League national title secured in May was the last remaining prize now sitting alongside FA Youth Cups, UEFA Youth Leagues and Under-21 titles.
Players who have been at the club for a decade, having signed as Under-9s, are also stepping into the limelight whether it be as part of Antonio Conte’s first team squad last season; as members of England’s World Cup-winning Under-20 side this summer; or someone such as Tammy Abraham who scored 26 goals during his maiden loan spell at Bristol City.
Bath has watched them all advance through the system during 13 years in his current role and believes they are reaping the rewards of an environment of excellence at the club. A challenging and diverse games programme forms a significant part of a player’s journey through the youth system, including a gradual introduction to the demands of winning provided by Premier League tournaments and foreign tours. They test players against different styles and opponents, and Bath is a firm believer in cultivating a winning mentality in players and teams at a formative stage of development.
‘Throughout the year, all our Academy age groups participate in overseas tours and tournaments which prepares them for future tournament football and for the challenge of winning,’ he tells the official Chelsea website. ‘We go out every weekend trying to win our games but we also have clear principles of play so we develop our players technically, tactically and physically. Playing to win is a big part of development because it challenges the players’ mentally as well.
‘You can see the benefits of that with our achievements in winning trophies at the older age groups in recent years and now with our boys involved in successes with England. You hear a lot in the media about club versus country but in youth development it’s so important to work together to find the best way to develop players and the experience of playing for your country should complement the competitions in academy football.
‘These competitions and the international tournaments are an important way to bridge the gap to senior football. Players like Tammy and Andreas Christensen have played in them all and I’m sure the experience has helped in their transition to the senior game.’
England’s youngsters have received prominent coverage this summer following the Under-20 World Cup triumph in South Korea, as well as the Toulon Tournament victory and a run to the final at the Under-17 European Championships. There followed a Euro semi-final at Under-21 level and the Under-19s have just begun their tournament with a win. The Chelsea Academy has once again been the best represented of all clubs across England youth age groups this season.
‘It is another huge highlight of our season to see players representing England and winning international tournaments,’ notes Bath. ‘At the Under-17 Euros we had four players who started every game and they were so unfortunate to concede a late equaliser in the final and then lose on penalties.
‘We then had five players in the squad who won the Toulon trophy for the second year running and three boys who have come through the Academy involved in the huge achievement of winning a World Cup. All the players and staff feel immensely proud to witness our involvement in such important trophy successes.’
Silverware has also been collected closer to home as our youth team were victorious in the Under-18 Premier League south section, national league and FA Youth Cup.
‘The Under-18 Treble is obviously the highlight that stands out most for us this season. It is an unprecedented achievement and congratulations go to Jody Morris, Ed Brand and all the support staff and players involved with the youth team.
‘Yet we always make the point with youth development success that so many people have been involved in that journey over many years, especially when so many of the players have been here since eight or nine years old. The immediate players and staff involved deserve a huge amount of credit but so do all our other staff who work with the players throughout the pathway in all different areas and of course the parents. It’s an achievement we should all take pride in.’
Innovation and evolution are essential for continued improvement, aspects Bath has always acknowledged and addressed. Joe Edwards will return to the Academy coaching set-up in July to lead the development squad alongside Andy Myers, who was at Vitesse last year, while Morris and Brand will have the task of following up a remarkable year with the youth team. At the age groups directly below, former first team players Jon Harley and Tore Andre Flo will work alongside James Simmonds with the Under-15s and Under-16s.
The personnel changes coincide with more structural alterations to the programme, including the expansion of our full-time education provision to the Under-14 age group. A recent Ofsted audit of the education and welfare work carried out by all 20 Premier League clubs for 16- to 18-year-old players returned an ‘Outstanding’ rating. A permanent indoor facility completed recently will also cater for all-weather training, particularly for the younger players.
‘As well as the success that is visible from the outside, there’s always a foundation of work that’s continually taking place to ensure we improve,' says Bath. 'It’s vital to continually develop our facilities to keep up with the competition and the indoor arena forms a big part of that with a pitch two-thirds the size of Stamford Bridge, a viewing area for 200 spectators and a specialist gym.
‘Especially being in London alongside so many clubs, we are in constant competition so ensuring our entire programme is the best it can be is so important. That stretches from our coaching programme and the content of our work to an overall holistic approach to player care and education that remains at the forefront and is balanced carefully with football development. This work is not as obvious to many but it forms the basis to bring more success in the development of our players in future years.’
In his reflections at the end of the campaign 12 months ago, Bath highlighted the changing landscape of youth development, particularly in relation to senior football breakthrough and the pathway evolving into a 15-year project. He believes it is imperative that our programme and philosophy adjusts alongside those changes in the wider game.
‘We will continue to compete in as many competitions as possible for the development of our players but we accept we might not enjoy as much success as we have in recent years because we want to push our young players to experience the senior game at an even earlier age. Naturally, that will make winning youth tournaments more difficult but we don’t see that as being a problem.
‘It’s a challenge for us to compete and win things with even younger teams while striking the balance of getting the right player on loan at the right club and not undervaluing our programme back at Cobham.
‘Realistically, to break into a first team like ours you need to have played 150 to 200 games at senior level. Even someone like Eden Hazard had done that in France before coming to Chelsea so the reality is our young players will need to experience the same, which is almost three full seasons out on loan. If a player goes out at 18 or 19 years old, that means they will be 22 years old before being able to really compete for a regular place in the team and you can see that pathway with the likes of Ryan Bertrand and Nathaniel Chalobah.
‘We accept it is going to take longer. The Premier League is a competitive global market for players and advances in sports science mean players are playing longer than ever before as well, which makes it even more competitive. That breakthrough becomes more difficult but we understand that and it’s why we see the whole Academy programme and the loans pathway as very much part of the longer-term development of our players.’