The Young Generation

As the dust settles on another successful season for our Academy, the official Chelsea website sat down with Under-18s manager Jody Morris to reflect on a campaign in which his side lifted three pieces of silverware, including a fourth consecutive FA Youth Cup and a maiden national league title.

The first league and cup double since 1961 was preceded by a third straight table-topping year in the Under-18 Premier League southern section but Morris recalls it was far from plain sailing in those early weeks, with two defeats suffered in our first four league outings.

‘If we’re being brutally honest, we felt at the start of the season that it was going to be a tough year,’ the 38-year-old admitted. ‘On paper, we’d had more talented teams in previous years so we had to be prepared to squeeze as much as possible out of every single player.

‘We made a slow start but we were actually in good positions and leading in both those early games we lost [away at Southampton and Norwich]. Poor individual defensive mistakes cost us so we had to go through a few video nasties and some tough training sessions. The second-years were not performing and their mentality wasn’t right, while some of the first-years were not used to the intensity of our training but those difficult sessions helped them grow as players and helped to build the team as a collective. It’s an old saying that you learn more in defeat and those sessions gave a chance for myself and Ed [Brand, assistant coach] to give better lessons and coaching.

‘There were plenty of moans and groans from the boys, especially early on when we’d raised the intensity of their training with more running and things they weren’t really used to. It’s important you keep pushing to get over the mountain so the players can then see the benefits of that effort, and that’s why you want to win things because it backs up all the work done throughout the year.’

Our youngsters were crowned FA Youth Cup champions again following a third successive victory over Manchester City in the final.

While trophy triumphs take the headlines, the bulk of the day-to-day work in the Academy is centred on developing young players both individually and within a team. The step up from schoolboy football is a big part of that and, as a former youngster in the Chelsea ranks himself, Morris understands the difficulties of such a transition. However, he was pleased with the attitude and application of the players and looks back on some significant development made over the course of the campaign.

‘It’s not all about winning but at the same time, if you are winning things it usually means there’s been improvement and the players are doing well,’ he said. ‘There’s not a single player in our group who’s had a flawless season on or off the pitch but that’s part of working with the youth team. Dips in form, physical problems and issues growing up off the field are all challenges you expect to face but they’re also the speed bumps that can be good for people.

‘When you come into our scholarship programme, you’re a full-time footballer at 16 years old and it becomes your job. The mentality changes and it’s hard sometimes to keep the right balance but our boys are fortunate that they have so many support systems and people in our Academy that work to make that transition as smooth as possible.

‘Pre-season was a huge part of getting them ready for Under-18s football because it is a big step, not just playing for three points every Saturday but playing with and against players that can be two years older as well. It’s a big change in physicality and the tactical side means you have to take on board a lot more information so the weight on your shoulders increases. The majority of the group have dealt with that transition really well and I genuinely believe every player has improved both on and off the pitch this season.’

"It’s not all about winning but at the same time, if you are winning things it usually means there’s been improvement and the players are doing well."

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Improving technical proficiency is clearly a key objective in developing young players but the tactical nuances of the game also become more pronounced as you advance through the age ranks. Development aligns with a desire to win, an important habit to cultivate in any young player hoping to enjoy a career in the senior game. Our youngsters have utilised a range of different systems in both the league and cup this term, a tactical adaptability that Morris believes proved significant in the key moments of the national title race.

‘We try to get the balance right between getting a system that will suit the players available and also testing them in different positions or shapes,’ the manager continued. ‘Our form post-Christmas seemed to suit playing with three at the back but the fact we played 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and 4-diamond-2 throughout the season served us well later on.

‘Against Reading in the elite round, when we needed three points to win the league, we made a quick decision to switch to 4-diamond-2 during the game and it changed the whole match. Being so flexible and having played so often in that system before meant it was ingrained in the players’ heads how to play that way.’

As well as a hat-trick of trophies, the youngsters also picked up a host of records along the way. Their 18 clean sheets in all competitions is the best since 1986/87, 115 goals in all competitions the most since 1972/73 and an unbeaten run that stretched from September to April the longest in 55 years. The young Blues also completed another season unbeaten at home, extending that particular run to over 24 months, and Morris is quick to emphasise that such landmarks proved a key source of motivation for the dressing room throughout a long campaign.

‘Those records were an important way for us to squeeze everything out of the players,’ he said. ‘We wanted to motivate them as much as possible throughout the season and when you’re on a good run, those little carrots can spur the dressing room on. We had players shouting out things like ‘four games to go until we beat our unbeaten record’ and I really liked that side of things. It’s good to remind people of the achievements that are round the corner and setting records like that at this club is huge because of how many top teams and players we’ve had in the past.’

Our youngsters celebrated a national title, although the southern league was the achievement Morris was most proud of this term.

Following two years as assistant, 2016/17 has proved to be an incredible debut season as the youth team manager for Morris. He will continue in the role again next term when his youngsters will be looking to match the five consecutive Youth Cups won by Manchester United’s Busby Babes in the 1950s. Yet it was topping the southern league, 11 points clear of their nearest challengers, that satisfied Morris the most this campaign.

‘It’s an amazing achievement for all the players and staff involved,’ he said when reflecting on the season. ‘Just seeing all those runs and records we broke shows how tough it is to win all three competitions. The Youth Cup always gets the biggest spotlight and the national league did as well this year because we hadn’t won it before but we said all along that the southern league was the most important competition for us.

‘It’s a 22-game league compared to the other two competitions where you only play 15 games combined and we see it as the reward for our day-to-day work throughout the majority of the season. The best teams win the league so out of everything we’ve achieved this season, the southern title is the one I’m most proud of.’