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Breakthrough Blues: How Academy graduates have debuted often during Abramovich era

Ahead of a milestone match in the Roman Abramovich era this weekend, we take a look at the high proportion of Academy graduates who have made debuts during the owner's time at the club, a direct consequence of his investment and commitment to our youth development programme...

When Chelsea meet Tottenham this weekend at Stamford Bridge, it will be the 1000th time the Blues have taken to the field since the start of Roman Abramovich’s ownership in 2003. Plenty has happened during that eventful period, most notably the lifting of 16 major honours, more than any other English team. 

Practically every area of the football club has been transformed to world-class standards over the past 17 years, none more so than our youth development programme, with seven of Frank Lampard’s current 25-man squad having graduated from the Chelsea Academy. 

That is testament not just to the head coach’s faith in young players but the quality being produced at Cobham, a direct consequence of the improved facilities, staffing structure and investment that Abramovich has overseen.

In fact, over the course of the past 999 games, 44 of the 158 players to have made their debut for Chelsea have been Academy graduates, a rather impressive 28 per cent.

Lampard has handed out eight of those debuts in the last 18 months and was also in the squad for the first as we take a look at those breakthrough Blues, with the full list at the bottom of this page...

Steven Watt

Jose Mourinho’s side were already seven points clear at the top of the Premiership when the FA Cup came around in January 2005, with Scunthorpe United the visitors to Stamford Bridge. Young defender Watt, just 19 years old, started in a makeshift back four as the Blues ran out eventual, if not comfortable, winners in the tie.

Having signed at the age of 16 from his hometown team Aberdeen, Watt became the first Academy debutant of the Abramovich era a year-and-a-half after the Russian’s ownership began. However, it was the Scotland Under-21 international’s only start for the club and he moved to Swansea City a year later.

His playing career took in spells back up north in Scotland and finished in non-league before he made the move into management after hanging up his boots. Now aged 35, he is currently in charge of Kent-based Isthmian League side Hythe Town.

Miroslav Stoch

In the early years of the Academy’s bottom-up transformation under Abramovich’s ownership, there was a twin approach of bringing in the best talent from the continent in the 16-18 age bracket, while revamping the development programme at the youngest age groups. 

This was no more in evidence than the summer of 2005, when an exciting 16-year-old winger made the move from Slovakia at the same time as eight-year-olds Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori officially signed for the club as Under-9s.

Stoch was a diminutive, skilful player who excelled in our youth and reserve teams, scoring often from out wide. He was handed his debut by Luiz Felipe Scolari in the autumn of 2008, replacing Deco late on in a 2-1 home defeat to Arsenal.

His post-Chelsea career has taken in spells in Turkey, Greece, Abu Dhabi and Czech Republic, along with 60 senior caps for the Slovakian national team, though it is arguably the FIFA Puskas award for the best goal in the world in 2012 that remains his most famous achievement to date.

Patrick van Aanholt

When Van Aanholt made the move from Eindhoven to London at the age of 16, he was one of the most highly regarded young defenders in Europe. Having been repositioned as a left-back rather than a central defender by then-reserve team boss Brendan Rodgers, the Dutchman soon found his path to the Chelsea first team complicated by the presence of a man feted as one of Chelsea and England’s best-ever left-backs.

‘He was a real mentor,’ Van Aanholt said recently of Ashley Cole. ‘He was amazing off the field, such a nice guy. He took his time to take me everywhere; he took me for dinner, I stayed in his house, everything. His best advice was to be yourself.’

It is over a decade since he debuted for the Blues in a Premier League game at Fratton Park in March 2010 as goals from Didier Drogba and Lampard helped Carlo Ancelotti’s men continue their surge towards a maiden Double. 

Following a number of loan spells, the most productive at Vitesse between 2012 and 2014, Van Aanholt has since established himself as a Premier League regular, first at Sunderland and most recently with Crystal Palace.

Ryan Bertrand

Six years after signing from Gillingham, Bertrand finally made his Blues debut in a Premier League match against Birmingham City in April 2011, replacing Cole at left-back having spent the majority of that campaign on loan at Nottingham Forest.

It wasn’t until the following season that he finally broke through on to the senior stage at Stamford Bridge, making 15 appearances which culminated with a place on the plane to Munich. Robbie Di Matteo’s squad was hit hard by injury and suspensions for the Champions League final but the Italian had faith in Bertrand, deploying him on the left in midfield.

‘Just before the end of that season, I was playing in front of Ash in training and the last game of the season against Blackburn I played there in front of him,’ Bertrand later recalled. ‘It was one of those things where you think, “he could, but surely he’s not going to!”’

He did and the tactical ploy worked a treat as Bayern were stifled on their own turf. Bertrand was withdrawn 17 minutes from time with the Chelsea contingent bellowing out his name as he left the field, his job done on the most famous of nights.

Nathan Ake

To those who watched him in the Chelsea Academy teams following his transfer from Feyenoord in 2011, Ake was always destined for the top. Calm and composed, strong yet stylish, quiet but undoubtedly quality, the youngster had practically been moulded into the archetypal Dutch centre-back.

He quickly gained experience, first by playing in older age groups and then by training with the first team, making his senior bow on Boxing Day 2012 in a narrow win at Norwich City. 

The ensuing four-and-a-half years of his Blues career were split between learning on loan and contributing in west London, with winners’ medals in the League Cup and Europa League as well as the 2013 Young Player of the Year accolade to show for his efforts.

Tammy Abraham

In the summer of 2005, all the signs were there that Abraham would register as an Under-9 player at a different London club; his family were all Arsenal fans, his idol was Thierry Henry and the Gunners were keen to tie down one of the best kid strikers in the capital. 

He was close to choosing red over blue but the lure of Chelsea, plus the dedicated work of coaching and recruitment staff from Cobham, proved too much of a pull. Tammy had made his decision and, when he scored a late Premier League winner at the Emirates last December, you could tell it meant something special.

The young striker actually made his debut three years before Lampard’s return as head coach, introduced by Guus Hiddink at Anfield in May 2016. It was a brief taste of the big time and preceded loans in Bristol, Birmingham and Wales.

‘He wants to listen, he wants to improve his game, he wants to score more goals, he wants to help his team-mates,’ Lampard said of Abraham last season and it is difficult to argue, by looking at performances or raw numbers, that Chelsea’s number nine continues to get better and better.

Nathaniel Chalobah

Born in Sierre Leone and raised in Lambeth, Chalobah was a regular at Cobham from the age of nine, impressing coaches with his style and stature. He was a leader too, captaining our 2012 FA Youth Cup-winning team and playing for the reserves while still only 15.

Progression beyond his years continued into the senior game as he went on loan to the Championship at 17 before playing in the Premier League and Serie A prior to his Chelsea debut in the League Cup in September 2016. Antonio Conte was in charge and used him 15 times in all competitions as the Premier League title was won.

Chalobah has spent the past three seasons at Watford and made his debut for England in October 2018 in the UEFA Nations League.

Armando Broja

The most recent of our homegrown debutants and the last player to be greeted onto the field at the Bridge by an adoring home crowd due to the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, Broja replaced Olivier Giroud for the final few minutes of our 4-0 victory over Everton in early March, the last game before the three-month football shutdown.

Although he represents Albania on the international stage, Broja was born 20 miles from Stamford Bridge in the Berkshire town of Slough and joined the Academy at the age of nine. His prolific form in front of goal had caught the eye of Lampard and the coaching staff, earning the teenager his maiden senior minutes on the Premier League stage.

Since then, he has joined Vitesse on loan and notched four goals in his first nine appearances in the Eredivisie for a side currently second in the table.


The full debut list

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