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How Chelsea’s investment in youth paid off

By Sean Finnan Nov 21, 2019

If you follow football long enough you are bound to hear at some stage some of these unanswerable debates that are now older than most football fans.

Who’s better? Messi or Ronaldo?

Why couldn’t Lampard and Gerrard play together for England?

And could Real Madrid do it on a cold, wet Tuesday night in Stoke?

But for the last decade and a half, well since Jesper Grønkjær (Gron-kar) scored the billion-pound goal for Chelsea that ushered in the ownership of Roman Abramovich in the summer of 2003, there has been the eternal argument levelled at the Chelsea, the original hyper-rich football club.

That being, why don’t Chelsea ever use players from their youth academy?

Before Abramovich, Chelsea had an esteemed youth history, on the level with anyone else in the football league.

Stretching back decades, Chelsea brought through the likes of Tottenham legend Jimmy Greaves, Barcelona, Spurs and England manager Terry Venables and the loveable journeyman in Ray Wilkins.

Even in the years leading up to the takeover of Chelsea, they still produced the likes of Premier league winner Robert Huth as well as John “Captain Fantastic” Terry who would play over 700 games and go on to captain Chelsea for over a decade, in the meantime becoming the most successful captain in their entire history.

Image result for john terry premier league

But while all that was good and elevated the stature of the club over the course of the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. Chelsea were classed as the nearly man club.

Leading up to Jose Mourinho’s inaugural season, Chelsea hadn’t won a league title since 1955, and had only won 7 major trophies in almost 50 years, all the while being in a mainstay in the top half of the top flight since the start of the 90’s.

Under the guidance of Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli and Claudio Ranieri, Chelsea (like their London counterparts arsenal) brought in some of the best England and European talents football could offer, with the injection of flair with the likes of Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Di Matteo, Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps, George Weah, William Gallas, Frank Lampard, Hernán Crespo, Joe Cole, Damien Duff and Claude Makélélé joining over the space of 7 seasons.

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Gianfranco Zola brought in a sense of continental class and style when he arrived in 1996

This shift in acquiring the best European football had to offer proved to be the first step in the right direction in their hunt for glory. Then when Abramovich took hold of the club in 2003 and hired the hottest up and coming manager in Jose Mourinho, Chelsea Skyrocketed. Chelsea with their mix of English and European talent under the guidance of Mourinho, won back to back titles for the first time in their history and won 3 major trophies in 3 years.

The investment proved to be a double-edged sword, Chelsea transferred from nearly men to serial winners and while this time for Chelsea fans is fondly remembered, its biggest criticism was their handling of young players especially those of which that were in their youth academy, that they had so proudly built up over the post-war period had been almost forgotten. Of the 7 academy graduates to have promoted to the first team under Mourinho’s first tenure at the club, not one of them would go on to play more than 5 games for Chelsea.

In the meantime, Chelsea were developing a new business strategy that would ensure cyclical successes; hoarding youth talent.

Buying promising players or even promising academy players for the sole propose of loaning them out until they can get an above market price and then ship them off.

This cynical view on running a football club did usher in a number of glorious seasons of unmatched ability. The downside of this model was a lack of future proofing. No manager could continually work under this model and be successful and in the meantime talents such as Romelu Lukaku, Nathan Ake, Daniel Sturridge,  Kevin De Bruyne, Thorgan Hazard and Mo Salah all slipped through the cracks of Chelsea’s well-oiled machine.

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The most-feared man in world football (sans his iconic beard) strutted his stuff for Chelsea in 2014.

But this tapping up of young players finally came back to bite Chelsea in February of this year. Mid way through Maurizio Sarri’s first and only season in charge, Chelsea were handed a transfer ban after Chelsea were found to have breached UEFA regulations for illegally tapping up and playing underage players over 150 times(involving nearly 70 players).

Fast forward past the Europe league final and the Sarri’s departure for Turin. Chelsea found themselves managerless again, but this time with an added extra of a transfer ban.

So whomever took the job would have to reinvigorate a stale team with no new, shiny and expensive toys.

Step forward Frank Lampard.

After only a season in management with Derby where he guided them to 6th (like the previous manager did but, with more points) and a play-off defeat to Aston Villa.

But Chelsea better count their lucky stars derby lost that final because Frank after he got appointed as Chelsea boss did something that every rival fan has told Chelsea to do for the last decade; “Play the Youth.”

With Jody Morris by his side Frank has set out to fully utilize the Chelsea academy graduates as well as the younger players. The recalling of Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount and Reece James all brought back from loan. The reinjection of Callum Hudson-Odoi into the team and the January bought Christian Pulisic have all become mainstays in the current Chelsea team.

At time of writing Chelsea are tied for 2nd with Leicester and are ahead of Man city in the Premier League, they’ve pulled off an incredible comeback against Ajax at Stamford Bridge and last and by no means least, Frank Lampard has guided Chelsea to 6 straight wins in the premier league.

The last time a Chelsea manager did that, they won the league.

What does the future hold for Chelsea?

It’s hard to tell, but with the spirit of youth injected into the Londoners veins, the sky is the limit.



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