When Chelsea and Manchester United meet at Stamford Bridge on Monday there are likely to be plenty of Academy graduates on show for both sides, which is no surprise given the two clubs’ success at that level, both over the last decade and in the formative years of English football’s modern youth structure.
The Blues’ youngsters have shown themselves to be particularly dominant in Academy football’s most prestigious competition, the FA Youth Cup, recently. We have lifted the trophy in seven out of the last 10 seasons and only failed to reach the final twice during that time.
Of our current squad, Tammy Abraham, Andreas Christensen, Jamie Cumming, Billy Gilmour, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori have all won the Youth Cup, as well as Tino Anjorin, who made his senior debut for us earlier this season, and several others who are still playing in our Academy or out on loan.
It’s also worth noting that the managers of our Under-18s sides for the last four of our FA Youth Cup triumphs – in consecutive years between 2015 and 2018 – were Joe Edwards and Jody Morris, who now work with many of those same players as part of Frank Lampard’s first-team coaching staff.
Man Utd are one of the three teams who have temporarily managed to wrestle that piece of silverware out of our grip, in 2011, and their midfield that season had a familiar look about it, with Jesse Lingard partnering Paul Pogba.
In one of the strange coincidences football seemingly loves to throw out there from time to time, the lynchpin of their opponents Sheffield United’s defence in the final was Harry Maguire, now the Red Devils’ captain. Instead, the victors’ back line was led by Michael Keane, now of Everton, who has partnered Maguire in the England national team’s defence on a number of occasions.
Of course, Academy football is primarily about producing players ready for the senior game, but you can’t fault either club on that level either. No less than 21 Youth Cup winners from the last decade have gone on to become full internationals, every single one of them from either Chelsea or Manchester United.
They have mostly come from Cobham, with United providing just Pogba (France), Tom Lawrence (Wales), Lingard and Keane (both England), compared to Chelsea’s 17 internationals, including seven who have made their debuts for the Three Lions in the last two-and-a-half years. The most familiar of those – Abraham, Hudson-Odoi, Loftus-Cheek, Mount and Tomori – are still with the Blues and impressing this season, but they also have Nathaniel Chalobah and Dominic Solanke for company as Youth Cup winners with Chelsea who have represented England at senior level.
The first 10 years of the FA Youth Cup, after it was created in 1952 to meet demand from the leading clubs’ increasingly formal youth systems, tells a similar story. United and their famous ‘Busby Babes’ dominated the early years, winning the first five tournaments in a row with a side which featured seven future internationals, including two of the finest players ever to represent England, Sir Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards.
However, then came the sad events of the Munich air disaster in 1958, and United’s struggles to reconstitute their senior side in the wake of that terrible tragedy meant their youth team’s success slipped down the list of priorities, with any promising youngsters pressed immediately into first-team duties.
That left a void for the next generation of emerging young talent to fill in the FA Youth Cup, and it was Chelsea who did so, with the core of what would become known as ‘Doc’s Diamonds’ in a respectful nod to their predecessors in red.
There was a brief hiccup when we lost the first final of the post-Babes era, despite being heavy favourites after the formidable forward line of Jimmy Greaves, Bobby Tambling and Barry Bridges had fired us into a healthy lead in the first leg of the showpiece against Wolverhampton Wanderers, but we returned to lift the trophy in successive years at the start of the Sixties.
Tambling was back for the first of those and demonstrating the prowess that would give him 202 senior goals for Chelsea, getting a hat-trick in the second leg of the final as we defeated Preston North End 5-2 on aggregate, and his team-mates Peter Bonetti, Allan Harris, Terry Venables, and Bert Murray would all become important players in the first team too. Venables would even captain the Blues under Tommy Docherty before their epic clash of personalities saw the midfielder leave for Tottenham.
Bonetti is probably the most notable of those names, though, as he went on to mind the Blues net for our first-team for the next 20 years, making an incredible 729 appearances for the club. In fact, he was already breaking into the senior side in 1960, and missed the first leg of the Youth Cup final having played at Bolton in our Division One fixture a couple of days earlier.
The next season, Bonetti had moved on to become a permanent member of the first team under Ted Drake, but Harris, Venables and Murray were all back to help Chelsea defend the Youth Cup title, beating Everton 5-3 over two legs in the 1961 final.
They were also joined by Harris’ younger brother Ron, who later captained the club to FA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup glory under Dave Sexton, as well as becoming the only person to represent the Blues more times than Bonetti.
All in all, plenty of inspiration for the next batch of rising young stars at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford, then.