When Bournemouth visit Stamford Bridge in the Premier League this weekend, there will be more than a little influence from the Chelsea Academy in both ranks.
The prevalence and performance of our young graduates has been one of the stories of the season, with Tammy Abraham currently our top goalscorer and the likes of Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori, Reece James and Callum Hudson-Odoi playing a key role for Frank Lampard’s side.
While Nathan Ake will miss out for the visitors with a hamstring injury, Dominic Solanke is set to start up front for the Cherries and line up head-to-head with a childhood friend he played alongside for over a decade.
Abraham and Solanke tore defences apart as schoolboys, scholars and then young professionals while representing Chelsea Academy teams. The duo netted 41 goals each in 2014/15 as they fired us to success in the FA Youth Cup and UEFA Youth League, a time Abraham has been reflecting back upon ahead of a reunion with his teenage strike partner.
‘We have so many good memories together,’ said Abraham when recalling his on-field partnership and off-field friendship with Solanke.
‘He was the first player I ever met when I came in to Chelsea and we clicked straight away. He was always skilful in the younger age groups and he had the quickest feet you’ve ever seen!
‘I remember he used to play as a winger but we had a good partnership up front. When I saw him doing a certain skill, I wanted to do it as well and we were just like that, always driving each other on. It was nice to have that friendship and bond to play alongside him.’
Fond memories are easy to come by when you’re firing the goals in with such regularity, although Abraham spent the early years of his time at Chelsea operating from a slightly different position on the pitch. It was a switch further forward that changed his footballing destiny and led to a fascinating battle for goals with Solanke in the youth team several years later.
‘I got moved to play as a striker after a couple of years,’ he explained. ‘It started in an Under-11s game against Reading when the striker was injured, so they tried me up front. I can’t remember how many goals I scored but it was quite a few, and I’ve never moved back!
‘I started to count my goals after that. The most I scored was for the Under-18s, when I got 41 in a season. It was me and Dom up front in that team and we were battling each other for the Golden Boot.
‘He was a goal ahead of me with one game left, against Norwich, and I remember the game so clearly. I desperately wanted to score that 41st goal to equal him and I only had eyes for goal that day. Luckily, I got my goal and we ended the season level. Those are really good memories.’
After that eye-catching 2014/15 campaign, Solanke went out on loan to Vitesse Arnhem and the pair played together only fleetingly after that. A two-year stay at Liverpool was followed by a summer move to the South Coast for Solanke, who is searching for a first club goal in 18 months, while Abraham’s loan spells took him to Bristol City, Swansea and Aston Villa before he grabbed his chance this season as Chelsea’s number nine with such confidence.
According to their former Academy coach Adi Viveash, it is perhaps Abraham’s self-assurance in the preceding three years that has determined their different paths.
‘Dominic was quite a shy boy,’ Viveash told the Athletic this week. ‘Tammy was what you see now: confident, bubbly, quite an extrovert. He was a lot louder than Dominic in an outward way, although on the pitch they both had the same steely determination.’
Abraham also agreed with that assessment of their contrasting personalities, although he remains sure that the boy he met at the age of seven all those years ago can still fulfil his undoubted potential.
‘In front of people he’s not comfortable with, he’s quiet but once he gets going he’s a good lad,’ added Abraham. ‘I think he can really develop into a top striker. He’s the kind of player who can play up front, on the wing and as a number 10 - he’s so versatile so he really can go to the top.’
Born just a month apart in 1997, both have played for Chelsea and for England, while between them they have amassed 93 Premier League appearances so far. For those who watched them vie for the same number nine shirt for so many years, Saturday afternoon at the Bridge will represent an intriguing next chapter in the story as they both wear that number on their back on opposing sides for the first time.