As another campaign comes to a close at our Academy and those working at Cobham enjoy a well-earned break to recharge before it all starts again, we catch up with head of youth development Neil Bath to assess a particularly challenging season both on and off the field…
Just like other areas of the club, the Academy has been forced to face the unique tests presented by both the coronavirus pandemic and the unexpected imposition of sanctions affecting our day-to-day operations.
With almost 300 players and staff under his charge, Bath and his colleagues have had to constantly adapt and adjust. Ever-changing Covid-19 protocols have made the return of schoolboy players to site quite unpredictable, while a number of personnel departures at the older age groups last summer made it a difficult term fighting against the threat of relegation for our development squad.
Thankfully, that unfortunate fate was averted with a final-day victory over Tottenham, while our Under-18s won the Premier League Cup but fell just short at the semi-final stage in the FA Youth Cup.
‘Our first objective this season was to get our younger age groups back into a normal routine of football and education following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, and also to get our support staff back on site again,’ he said.
‘Then of course we look at development across the age groups and I want to say a massive congratulations to our schoolboy players who have been very successful with a number of tournament wins and finals appearances. It’s testament to the hard work that the players and the staff put in on a daily basis.
‘I want to extend my congratulations to the professional development phase as from a team point of view, we have seen our Under-18s win the Premier League Cup, while our development squad successfully escaped relegation on the final day of the season.
‘The intention before the season began was not to be involved in a relegation fight but in this phase of development, it is very easy to find yourself in that situation. Our staff and players rallied together to overcome this, which was a huge positive and a real learning curve for them.’
The Blues saw players such as Dynel Simeu, Lewis Bate and Tino Livramento depart on permanent deals last summer, while Armando Broja, Tino Anjorin and Levi Colwill took the next step in their respective pathways with a senior loan.
While each of these exits left our roster of players at under-23s level somewhat lighter, Bath maintains that individual development remains at the forefront of every decision made, even if they aren’t always easy calls to make.
‘We’ve always tried to strike the balance between making our players available for a loan or allowing them to leave on a transfer as we don’t want to stunt the growth of an individual who is good enough,’ Bath added.
‘If you’re good enough, you’re old enough and we always push that. Levi Colwill is the perfect example of this as he could have been a great asset to have in the PL2 campaign this season but we recognise that the right thing was for him to play at a more senior level, which he has done ever so successfully this season with Huddersfield Town in the Championship. That is the bigger picture.
‘Just to name a few, I want to say a big well done to Armando Broja, Conor Gallagher and Billy Gilmour for all making positive impressions in their loan spells playing for the first team of Premier League clubs.’
While there were impressive loan spells from players who have come through the Academy, some of those who remained were also awarded the opportunity to achieve childhood dreams and make their senior debuts for the Blues.
The trio of Harvey Vale, Jude Soonsup-Bell and Xavier Simons made their bow in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals away at Brentford in October, while Lewis Hall did the same in the FA Cup third round three months later, in the process becoming our youngest player to start a cup tie in the competition.
‘It was obviously great to see all the boys making their senior debuts this season,’ continued Bath. ‘This is the ultimate target for us and considering we started this season in a lockdown, it’s a major success from the Academy.
‘Special congratulations goes to Harvey Vale, who also won the Academy Player of the Season award and, on top of his good performances at Under-23s level, was rewarded with five appearances for the first team, which was a tremendous feat for him.’
The end of a season also marks the departure of some players and the start of their next career chapters. Chelsea’s Academy remains in touch with those moving on long after they have said their goodbyes, with extensive aftercare support in place if needed. George McEachran, Thierno Ballo and Karlo Ziger all move on this month, as does more senior graduate Jake Clarke-Salter.
While the various achievements of silverware success are important in youth development, Bath always has his eye on the coming years. The Vision 2030 project is well underway, mapping out a long-term vision for the Academy programme at Cobham, and one of the key tenets of this plan is to ‘go again’, which Bath is excited to do under the new ownership group now in place at the club.
‘Our attention will quickly be focused on the upcoming seasons and how we can improve and get better,’ he added. ‘One of the biggest parts of this is the implementation of our Vision 2030 strategy.
‘We’ve had the opportunity to set this plan out to Todd Boehly and the new owners in a series of meetings, during which their feedback and backing has been really positive and encouraging.
‘We had tremendous support from Roman Abramovich over many years and now we are really excited to be starting a new era with these new ideas, innovations and strategies at the heart of taking us forward. It’s an exciting time to be at the Chelsea Academy!’