As our Academy players and staff enjoy a well-earned rest during the close season, we catch up with head of youth development Neil Bath to reflect on a year like never before, plotting pathways, and graduates gracing the big stage in Europe…
After 28 years of service in our Academy, Bath has near enough seen it all, progressing from a part-time coach all the way to the top of the youth development structure at the club. He has been in his current role since 2004 and has since overseen the most successful period for our junior teams in terms of silverware and development.
The past season, however, was one not many could ever have imagined having to contend with as lockdowns and new protocols changed the way everybody at Cobham worked and interacted. Yet the willingness of club staff, players, parents and those at the Premier League ensured 2020/21 was not a wasted year and that young players across the country were able to continue their development as best as possible.
When the pandemic halted operations at our Surrey training ground and a new, remote way of working was forced upon the majority of the world, Bath was quick to praise all those involved for quickly adapting to what would become the new normal.
‘There’s a feeling that two seasons have been rolled into one,’ he tells the official Chelsea website. ‘There almost wasn’t a gap between the two, particularly in the professional development phase.
‘The Under-18s and Under-23s staff and players worked right through the summer so that when the men’s first team returned, they were around and could provide the appropriate support. Then there was a very quick turnaround to prepare for their own leagues and it felt as though everything had rolled into one.
‘I have to praise the collaboration between the Premier League and its clubs for getting through the year and also praise the hard work of the staff and the players who have had to be so flexible in their way of working, while continuing to adapt to change without any complaints.
'Everyone has just got on with it and with that there has been a big pull together of people across football.’
It was another year of learning and development for our professional development phase, one which did not yield silverware success but, as Bath explains, trophies are never the be-all and end-all in youth development. This is particularly the case at a club like Chelsea, which priorities player development at the earliest possible age.
‘Our programme will always be about pushing the young players if we feel they are ready to play,’ explains Bath. ‘It’s not a race - some are ready before others and that’s not a problem. It’s about understanding that the pathway progression of every player can be different but when the pathway is there we will guide the player towards that.
‘With this approach to player development, even though we’ve had tremendous trophy success over the years, that won’t always be the case. The success of previous years has been amazing but it won’t happen year after year because if a window opens for a player to move up a level then naturally our teams won’t be as strong as they could be.
'We see trophies as part of player development but never to the detriment of their individual pathway.’
— Neil Bath
Conor Gallagher continued his individual development pathway with a Premier League loan at West Brom last season, while others such as Nathan Baxter, Jamie Cumming, Trevoh Chalobah, Marc Guehi, Ian Maatsen, Armando Broja and Ike Ugbo earned regular senior football either in England or abroad. Bath explains the thinking behind those differing pathways and why it’s important to be patient once one has been identified for a player.
‘I speak to players about the loans programme a lot and I always make it very clear that there isn’t one pathway,’ he continues. ‘It’s about seeing how many pathways we can offer a youngster and giving them the guidance to navigate that to the best of their ability.
‘The aim is for all our young players to leave youth development football and move into the senior game but then it’s important to work together to find what’s best for them. Going out on loan is a part of that for some but not for all, as has been the case with the likes of Callum Hudson-Odoi and Billy Gilmour up to this point.
‘Selecting the best club for a player to develop at is all part of the programme. It can take players a few years out on loan before they get to our first team and as we always say, players will develop at different ages in the Academy and out in the men’s game.’
Bath is keen not to dismiss the mountains of work done with the younger boys in the Academy. The full-time school programme has continued throughout the season, albeit virtually for much of the academic year in line with UK Government restrictions. Similarly, coaching has continued with our youngest players, with technology playing a greater part in the programme given the limited contact time available.
Naturally, the end of a season sees some players leave the club, many going on to join other professional academies or senior teams. For those who find themselves pursuing a different avenue, the Chelsea Academy has an extensive post-16 education and welfare programme in place as well to provide appropriate aftercare support.
Marcel Lewis, Jonathan Russell, Jack Wakely and Pierre Ekwah Elimby all depart this month, as does more senior graduate Izzy Brown.
‘This time of the season is the part when you have to make difficult decisions in regards to retain and release,’ adds Bath. ‘We are always determined to help any player in their chosen pathway, in or out of football, for as many years needed.
'Once you’ve been part of the Academy family, we’re always open should you need us in the future.’
— Neil Bath
The end-of-season finale was one all connected to Chelsea can be proud of, not least those in the Academy. A strong contingent were in the travelling squad to Porto for the Champions League final. Two starting players, three on the bench, numerous staff in the sports science and medical department, as well as assistant coach Joe Edwards in the coaching set-up.
Bath himself was in the stands at the Estadio do Dragao along with assistant head of youth development Jim Fraser, watching on with a strong sense of pride as the Blues lifted the trophy for the second time.
‘It was an incredibly special weekend,’ he says with a smile. ‘There was a strong Academy group there and they had all played their part.
'The road to the Champions League is a two-year journey - there were players involved in getting us a top-four finish the season before and involved on the night who didn’t get on the pitch so they deserve a lot of credit too.
‘The large core of Academy players that played their part made us all very proud, as did the several staff involved.
‘Seeing those guys celebrating was quite emotional and then we got to see our owner excited in his seat behind us and that was incredible. Everyone felt a part of a special club occasion and I was personally honoured to be there.’
A Chelsea supporter since he was a boy, you can forgive Battersea-born Bath a moment of celebration and self-congratulation, even if he is the last to step forward for individual praise. His attentions and those of his staff quickly turn to next season and the next crop of youngsters hoping to make their journey to the pinnacle of the game.
‘My first priority is to get the younger age groups back into a normal routine of education and football,’ he explains. ‘Looking further forward, we have a project named Vision 2030 which highlights the long-term development of the Academy programme. It involves our board and owner, who are keen to hear our innovative and creative ideas, which will see us kick on for the next five to 10 years.
‘I can assure people that we will not rest on our laurels of having boys involved in Champions League success. It’s important to set out what we are doing in the short-term but also to have a long-term vision and direction of where we want our Academy to be in the future. That is always the main focus.’
If there is one man who won’t stop looking ahead, it is Bath, the humble strategist and popular leader who continues to play such an understated but integral role in the club’s successes.