‘We cannot afford to be complacent or get too carried away,’ says Neil Bath, but even he admits these are special times for the Academy.
Following a week in which Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount scored their first senior England goals and Fikayo Tomori made his Three Lions debut for Gareth Southgate’s side, our head of youth development sat down with the official Chelsea website to discuss a remarkable start to the season for our young players.
On a mid-September afternoon in the Midlands, three homegrown English youngsters who all signed for Chelsea before they had joined secondary school contributed with the goals in a 5-2 Premier League victory at Molineux.
Less than a fortnight later, six Cobham-produced players featured in a thumping League Cup win over Grimsby Town at Stamford Bridge. Two of them scored and another four were unused substitutes. The home crowd loved to see it, particularly a small pocket of Academy players and staff situated in the West Stand, including the man who has overseen our Academy’s rise to one of the best talent development centres in Europe.
This was a special night and Neil Bath, head of youth development at the club since 2011, had every right to be the proudest man in west London. A Chelsea supporter who followed the team around the country in the 1980s, Bath has been working in youth development at Chelsea for over 25 years.
He joined as a part-time schoolboys coach at Harlington six years before Mount was even born. As staff and players have come and gone, he has remained as the reassuring ever-present in charge of the operation, always innovating, adapting, modernising and believing that a homegrown core of players could form the basis of the Chelsea squad.
‘When you’ve known the players and their families since they were kids, and you’ve seen how much hard work has been put in from everybody on the journey, it is an emotional and special feeling when you see them out there on the pitch,’ Bath admits.
‘It’s what we’ve been working towards for 15 years since we restructured the Academy in 2004 and a lot of people – players, parents and staff – have been on that journey for almost as long. The fact that we have four or five of them making that breakthrough into the team at the same time makes it even more unique and extraordinary.’
Chelsea’s Academy: A 15-year project reaping rewards
The man with the long-term plan has spent most of his professional life working towards this objective. Initially, he was in charge of the eight- to 16-year-olds based at our former training ground in Harlington as well as in Battersea, where Bath grew up.
In those early years, he worked with a small group of staff, often coaching himself and seeking to initiate a bottom-up restructuring that focused on bringing in the best youngsters from across London and the South-East. In 2005, that group included Abraham and Tomori, as well as Dominic Solanke – all three have played in the Premier League this season, combining for 32 appearances already.
The 15-year project that Bath has helped orchestrate has been transformative for youth development at Chelsea. Our move to Cobham ensured leading talent could prosper within world-class facilities, with more coaching and support staff added to bolster the various provisions offered along the development pathway.
A full-time school at the training ground soon followed, as did silverware, though Bath has always maintained the trophy cabinet is not his primary gauge of success.
‘We’ve always been very clear that our job is not really to win youth trophies year after year but to develop and produce Chelsea and Premier League players,’ he says.
‘We’ve had some success with that over the years and seeing the breakthrough of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andreas Christensen into the senior set-up has been a real positive, but this season has been fairly remarkable by anybody’s standards.
‘The fact that Mason, Tammy, Fikayo, Callum [Hudson-Odoi], and Reece [James] have all joined those two in the men’s first team squad on a daily basis, and contributed so significantly and so frequently, is just incredible.
‘On top of that, we’ve already seen debuts for Billy Gilmour, Tino Anjorin, Ian Maatsen and Marc Guehi this season so the boys have been given their opportunities and they’ve taken them with both hands. Most of these boys have been with us for 10 years or more, coming in to train or play five or six times a week, so you have to acknowledge the commitment that they and their families have put in to get where they are today.’
Frank Lampard’s impact
But why now? Chelsea have had plenty of exciting young talent that has come through over the years but failed to make a lasting impact in the senior set-up. Bath credits Frank Lampard with this change in approach, praising our new boss for his philosophy of trusting young players to make an impact. They have a good relationship and two of Lampard’s assistants – Jody Morris and Joe Edwards – worked under Bath as coaches in the Academy for a number of years.
‘Frank’s appointment has been absolutely fundamental in creating these current opportunities because he’s a manager who is prepared to look, trust and play individuals who deserve it, regardless of age,’ Bath explains.
‘It has always been about merit but Frank said from his first day in the job that he was prepared to look and the players have taken their chance, showing the right characteristics and their quality in training and matches. People have been very quick to say the transfer ban has left him with no choice but these players are in the team because they deserve to be.’
It is not just with performance levels that the young players have been impressing. Their general attitude and application in training, as well as how they act and interact off the field, has also been admired by Lampard. Bath takes as much pride in this as their footballing achievements because it reflects the culture he has spent the past 15 years crafting at Cobham.
‘We have to set our ambitions high because we want to be the best football academy in the world and the number one choice for players and parents,’ he continues. ‘That’s about maximising player potential but also developing them as good young people as well.
‘When first team coaching staff speak so highly about them as people, how they are humble and respectful, how they work so hard every day and set the standards in training, that’s also incredibly nice to hear and reinforces the culture we have built.
‘Respect, togetherness and hard work is what we expect from everyone. Being grounded and empathetic is a big part of our culture and sometimes it’s hard to get the right balance when you’re also promoting an elite, winning mentality where players need to be mentally tough to reach the top.
‘The culture has to be built organically over a long time, you can’t just click your fingers and create it. You have to stick to your values, live them every day and sometimes make tough decisions if you have the wrong people showing the wrong characteristics because that undermines everything and everyone. When you get the right culture in place, it becomes much easier because the players and staff police the building and the environment becomes self-serving.’
Mason Mount’s self-belief justifies the culture
Academy players typically sign rolling two-year registration contracts and are well within their rights to move clubs for minimal training compensation if they wish. It is a nuance of youth development that means retaining players becomes just as important as attracting them.
In an interview earlier this year, Mount’s father Tony revealed how he tried to convince his then-15-year-old son to consider other opportunities when he was offered a scholarship by the Blues in 2014. ‘I’m not leaving Chelsea, it’s my club,’ was Mason’s response. ‘I’ve been here since the age of six and I’m going all the way.’
Naturally, Bath gives credit for the player’s unswerving self-belief in that instance but he also knows the work of his staff and the environment they create for young players to prosper has been just as important.
‘That just goes to show the constant battles in not just trying to attract talent but to keep it as well,’ reveals Bath. ‘It was Mason who wanted to stay, keep developing and keep fighting, and I’m sure the family feel and the culture we have created was a big reason for that.
'There are so many people involved in that but the relentless work of Jim Fraser [assistant head of youth development] and his team over so many years has been particularly significant.’
Mount’s decision is now paying off as he remains our most-used outfielder in the Premier League this season. The prevalence of the 20 year-old and his Academy team-mates in the senior squad is the consequence of years of hard work from Bath and his staff, as well as the players and their families, although the feeling is this could be just the start.
‘We’re currently the reigning Premier League champions from Under-13 to Under-16, which is a really positive sign, and we’ve just achieved our best-ever GCSE results, but we need to make sure these boys have all the characteristics and attributes, as footballers and as young men, to follow the likes of Ruben, Mason, Fikayo and Tammy.’
It is typical of Bath to reset goals, to refuse to bask too much in present glories and to seek continual improvement. After all, he and his staff have the next group of scholars to nurture, the next crop of schoolboys to develop and hopefully the next set of England internationals to produce.
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