After a 36-game season that stretched from Swindon and Yeovil to Sweden and Switzerland, development squad manager Joe Edwards sat down with the official Chelsea website to reflect on the key moments following a mid-table finish in Premier League 2, another exciting run to the knockout stages in the senior Checkatrade Trophy and a European campaign that went all the way to the final once again.
Edwards took charge of the oldest Academy age group for the second season and recorded another strong term with one of the youngest sides in the league. Seven of our eight highest appearance-makers in 2017/18 departed in the summer, two of them straight on loan into the Championship, so the Blues had to grow up quickly against opponents older and wiser.
Here, Edwards picks his highlights of the 2018/19 campaign…
‘It has to be the Barcelona game, for so many reasons,’ says the 32-year-old, reflecting on our progress in the Under-19 UEFA Youth League competition. ‘They are renowned for being one of the top academies in the world, they always have top teams and outstanding young players so any time you face them in a semi-final is going to be a big moment. It was a defining moment for us last season and unfortunately in a negative way so there was a lot on it for us.
‘When the game started, Barcelona were moving the ball at an incredible tempo and that could have easily scared a few of our players but we took our time to get into the game. The second half was one of our best performances of the season and to do it at an important time, against such a strong opponent on such a big stage, was definitely a highlight of our season.’
Edwards also looks back fondly on our run to the last-16 in the Checkatrade Trophy, a journey that took in victories over the senior sides of Swindon Town, Plymouth Argyle and AFC Wimbledon.
‘The Checkatrade Trophy has almost become the new benchmark in academy football and we had some great moments in the competition again this season,’ he continues. ‘If you look at this year’s group, a lot of them were playing Under-18s football a year ago so they had a massive jump from the latter stages of the FA Youth Cup in April to playing against League One teams in August and September.
‘Beating Swindon 4-0 and Plymouth 5-0 in the group stage was fantastic but the standout moment in this competition was the AFC Wimbledon game at Stamford Bridge. It got a bit tasty once they saw we were the better team and a few nasty tackles went flying in so then you have to look for the other side of the game – can you look after yourself, compete and stick together, as well as show your quality with the ball. That was a night where we did a bit of everything and I was really proud of the players for that.’
While the young Blues enjoyed cup progress, the league campaign was a far rockier experience and it took until December for them to pick up their first home victory in PL2. That proved one of just two wins at Aldershot all season and Edwards admits the struggle to find home comforts put a particular strain on the group.
‘A massive theme for us this season has been the contrast in form and results at home compared to away,’ he explains. ‘Our home form was hard to comprehend and it was really difficult at times because it lasted the whole season. We addressed it several times, tried to come up with different strategies around how we prepared before the game, the environment around the team on the night, even how we set up on the pitch. We did get a couple of big results at Aldershot against West Ham and Man City but overall our form was poor and it’s a strange one that even now I can’t put my finger on.
‘It was disappointing because when you alternate between playing at home and away in Premier League 2, that really stopped us getting any consistency or momentum together. Our finishing position and points total were better than last season but those games at home ultimately cost us a place near the top of the league.’
‘Two performances that stand out for me both came on the road. Blackburn in our first away game of the season was a real strong performance – we had the likes of Callum [Hudson-Odoi] and Ethan [Ampadu] with us that night but we still looked very much like a team. The intensity and football we played was excellent, the mentality of the group was spot on and the result was emphatic [3-0].
‘Liverpool away towards the end of the season is the other standout, even though we lost the game, because the football in the first half was some of the best we’ve played all season.’
Goal of the season
‘There were a couple of individual strikes from Conor Gallagher, away at Arsenal and at home against Monaco, but the Liverpool goal is my favourite because it showed exactly what we want the game to look like. There were 20-odd passes in the build-up against a strong Liverpool team that were pressing us a lot. We took them all over the pitch, then had the skill in the box from Tariq Lamptey and the finish from Conor.’
Academy Player of the Year
Midfielder Gallagher also picked up the Academy Player of the Year award at the club’s recent awards night and Edwards explains why he and his staff opted for the 19-year-old above his peers, citing the teenager’s ability to overcome adversity as a key factor.
‘Conor did pretty much all his work last season with the Under-18s so this was his first season with the development squad and it couldn’t have started any worse for him actually,’ reveals the boss. ‘He was away with England in the summer and they came across a heart condition that required minor surgery to correct. It goes without saying that such an issue is not common and would be a massive thing for a young player to try to come to terms with.
‘It cost Conor his whole pre-season but he bounced back in the way you’d expect because his mentality is solid and he’s just a fighter. It’s that desire and energy that have been so important for us because we’ve had to fight a lot this season, particularly in the UEFA Youth League knockout stages, and he’s been our catalyst. He’s a good player technically but that heart and physical capability to keep pushing himself have set him apart.
‘Luke McCormick would have pushed him really close if he’d not been robbed of so many minutes through frustrating injuries because he gave so much to us as a leader and a goalscoring midfielder, but Conor was the standout performer. People talk about talent a lot and how sometimes that isn’t enough when you’re trying to step into the men’s game, but being effective is important and that’s definitely a word I’d use to describe Conor for us this season.’
Academy graduates making moments
While there were no trophies at the end of the Chelsea Academy season, Edwards is more than aware that the biggest indicator of our youth development programme’s success lies in individual progress into the senior game. It is why he and his colleagues take so much pride when the likes of Andreas Christensen, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi take centre stage, as well as in the achievements of on-loan graduates such as Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham.
‘To see three players involved so often in the Premier League and Europa League is a real motivator for us as staff, but particularly for the players because it shows there’s a way there if you’re good enough and you put the work in,’ concludes Edwards.
‘We’ve also reflected on last season’s group and how well they’ve done this season – Reece James and Trevoh Chalobah playing a whole season in the Championship, and Callum kicking on both at Chelsea and with England. That’s a great measure of the work we did last year with those boys and it’s a great source of motivation for this group.
‘Progress will happen at different rates - some of them will consolidate with another year with the development squad, some will go out on loan and try to do what Reece, Trevoh, Mason and Fikayo have done, and others will hopefully keep getting closer to the men's first team squad. There might be no trophies this season but there’s certainly been a lot of fantastic achievement and progress from Chelsea Academy players.’
Castillo 32+1, McEachran 29+4, Redan 24+9, Guehi 31+1, Colley 29+3, Gilmour 28+3, Brown 19+12, Lamptey 27+3, Gallagher 24+4, Cumming 23+1, Uwakwe 12+7, Maatsen 17, McCormick 11+5, Nartey 15+1, Grant 13+2, Taylor-Crossdale 10+5, Anjorin 6+8, Ziger 8, Ampadu 7, Lavinier 1+5, Mola 0+6, Hudson-Odoi 5, Bulka 4, Ugbo 4, Nunn 0+4, Musonda 3, Wakely 2+1, Russell 0+3, Dabo 2, Piazon 2, Wakefield 2, Ballo 1+1, Lewis 0+2, Abraham 1, Askew 1, Ekwah Elimby 1, Johnson 1, Lawrence 0+1, Livramento 1, Masampu 0+1, Simeu 0+1
Brown 20, Redan 12, Gilmour 9, McCormick 8, Gallagher 4, Anjorin 4, Castillo 3, McEachran 3, Grant 2, Musonda 2, Nartey 2, Uwakwe 2, Colley 1, Hudson-Odoi 1, Taylor-Crossdale 1, Ugbo 1,
* Stats include UEFA Youth League, Premier League 2 and Checkatrade Trophy