Chelsea Under-18s get this season’s FA Youth Cup campaign under way on Friday evening and head coach Hassan Sulaiman is eager to write another chapter in our proud history in that competition.
The FA Youth Cup has always been seen as the trophy to win when it comes to youth football in England, and it is a piece of silverware we have lifted on nine occasions in the past, a record second only to Manchester United. However, our last triumph came in 2018.
Ahead of travelling to Leicester City in the 2023/24 third round, current Under-18s head coach Hassan Sulaiman is adamant that his target this season is to end that wait by securing more success this season, after the Blues reached the semi-finals in 2022 and the final in 2020.
‘You only have to look at our history in the competition to understand how important it is to us,’ said Sulaiman. ‘It is a prestigious competition and I don’t think I can shy away from saying we certainly want to win it.
‘We obviously haven’t won it in a few years. We’ve come close but we haven’t quite got over the line to lift the trophy. Certainly the boys want to win as many competitions as possible and they want to be competing for this trophy in particular.
‘So without a shadow of a doubt we see it as a competition that we want to win and I have no doubts that the boys will give everything they can to be able to do so.’
Sulaiman has had plenty of time to work with the players on the training pitch going into this game, as our last match was postponed due to a frozen pitch in Reading, meaning we have played just once since the end of October. However, with an expanded squad available to Sulaiman for this Youth Cup tie, it is time at Cobham which has been put to good use.
‘Momentum is always important but at the same time training also provides that momentum. It’s different stimulus to a match, of course, and the boys were disappointed not to play, but for us it’s business as usual. Training’s always competitive.
‘We managed to get some 11 v 11 games, we’ve done a lot of unit work, we’ve been able to work on individuals and support them where necessary. So while we weren’t able to play a game on the Saturday, we’ve still been able to create a competitive environment in training on a daily basis.
‘We are training with all of the boys who are available for selection, which also includes some of the Under-16s, because there’s a number of them who have performed really well, particularly at the Under-16s national finals. So a few of them are also in contention.
‘We’ve got talented boys littered through the Academy. Everyone under the age of 18 is eligible. Every boy wants to play in the game. Everyone wants to start, everyone wants to play in their preferred position, but sometimes that doesn’t always happen. We still have to have our development hat on, which might mean that some players play out of position, it might mean that we give opportunities to others.
‘For me as a coach, it’s about finding that balance of definitely picking a team that we feel can win the game, but also picking a team that I think is the best balanced to win the game, and giving opportunities to those we feel deserve it. So it’s a constant juggling act, but one that I know, with the support of the coaching staff, we want to get right, but not losing sight of the bigger picture.
‘Although we want to win the game, in the bigger picture the real win for us is to develop these players to become first-team Chelsea players who go on to have professional careers. As much as we want to win, that balance is important, and the long-term win is getting the players over the line.’
Chelsea have been handed a tough opening draw for this season’s FA Youth Cup, which features clubs from across the football pyramid. Our first match of the 2023/24 campaign will be against familiar opposition away at Leicester City, another top-flight academy three points behind us in the Under-18 Premier League table, although we have played two games less.
That suits Sulaiman perfectly, though, as he looks forward to a competitive match that could allow his team to make a promising start to this season’s FA Youth Cup.
‘In a cup competition every team presents a different challenge. Playing against Leicester, who we play in the same Under-18s league with, we have an idea of what they’re going to be like.
‘You can see that as an advantage, because we can make sure we’re prepared for the game. But also we know they’re going to come at us and we’re going to go at them, so it makes it a really competitive game to be a part of.
‘I don’t think we’d want it any different. No-one wants a game that might seem like a warm-up or that might be easy. You’ve got to start and hit the ground running and that’s certainly what we expect to do.’