Now or Never for Chelsea's Youth

Published: 12th November 2015 08:49 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th November 2015 08:53 AM   |  A+A-

The goal scored by Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Chelsea Under-21s against their Liverpool counterparts last week was the kind you see in highlights reels of the young Ronaldo at PSV Eindhoven, or the old VCR footage of a teenage Ryan Giggs running amok for his local team in Salford, in the last months before his Old Trafford debut.

It was the sort of goal that the Xbox generation would struggle to score on Fifa, let alone their local park, a mismatch in which Loftus-Cheek took the ball almost from kick-off and embarked on a run that was unstoppable in every sense. In fact, if one of the Liverpool players trailing in his wake had hopped on the Chelsea midfielder's back before he unleashed a right-footed shot past the goalkeeper it is debatable whether he would have even slowed down.

His reaction to this goal - 10 seconds into the second half, three opponents beaten - was telling: not so much joy as a bashful smile. It felt like Loftus?Cheek had inadvertently revealed an uncomfortable truth about the English game to which no one wanted to admit. That particular truth was that here was one of the best young English prospects in the game obliged to play at a level far beneath him, in what passes as reserve-team football these days, and yet still far enough from the Chelsea first team that he has started just one Premier League match all season and was substituted at half-time.

Each year, the Chelsea Supporters Trust poll their members on the changes they would like to see at the club and, after ticket prices, the preoccupation of match-going supporters is first-team opportunities for academy players. After all, the club have won everything there is to win in the past 12 years, even the unloved Europa League, which tends to get pushed to the back of the cabinet like an embarrassing wedding present.

As Chelsea embark next week on the latest unexpected challenge, the battle for 15th place with Norwich City, the question again presents itself: why can the club and their manager not accept the situation in which they find themselves is a chance to do things differently? If ever there was an end?of?era mood about Stamford Bridge it is now, and if ever a club could afford a period of rebuilding it is the Chelsea of 2015.

Amid the worst start to a season in 37 years there is no pressure on Jose Mourinho from the supporters who sing his name through every defeat. The only pressure is the history of what Roman Abramovich has done with struggling managers.

As for the club owner's feelings, who knows, but one can only assume he has accomplished most of whatever it is that Russian oligarchs want to accomplish in London. Yet Loftus-Cheek is understood to be exploring the possibility of his first loan move away from Chelsea to join the 33 others the club have farmed out.

Among them, Andreas Christensen and Tomas Kalas must wonder what the rationale was behind signing Papy Djilobodji from Nantes, a defender who was playing non-league football in France five years ago and has so far been given a single minute of action in the Capital One Cup against Walsall.

From an academy that has won three of the last four FA Youth Cups, as well as last year's Under-19s Uefa Youth League - all achieved without the help of loaned players - the wait goes on for a regular first-team footballer.

Radamel Falcao, clearly struggling at the elite level last season, was signed instead of giving an opportunity to Dominic Solanke, Isaiah Brown or Tammy Abraham, three more for whom under-21s football barely longer holds a challenge.

Mourinho made a bold claim last year when he said that if Brown, Solanke and Lewis Baker did not become England senior internationals then he would "blame myself". All three are on season-long loans at Vitesse Arnhem, where Solanke, only just 18, has three goals in his past five games and Baker, 20, has started every game. The Dutch left-back Nathan Ake, a Chelsea academy boy on loan at Watford, was man of the match in the win against West Ham United and is now five places above his parent club in the Premier League.

There is a moment in the life of every club when you have to acknowledge it is time to do something differently. If Chelsea are looking to add new players in January then instead of the mediocrities available in the mid-season transfer window, they should look at bringing home some of the academy boys who know what it is to play for the club.

In years gone by the club could point to the standards set by the first team and demand that their young players reach the same before they were even considered, but that was before they faced the biggest meltdown in performance levels of the Abramovich era. They made a mess of the last transfer window and there are no certainties that they could put right in the next.

Rather, Loftus-Cheek's goal against Liverpool was a nudge in the ribs to a club who have always nurtured the best intentions about youth development but never quite had the courage to follow them through. That goal was a reminder of the excitement that can surround a young player and the possibilities that abound when you give him a proper chance to show what he can do.


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