Have Chelsea hierarchy learned lessons on youth?
Written by Simon Austin — January 26, 2021
CHELSEA may have won more major trophies than any other English side during the 13 seasons of the Roman Abramovich era, yet still Frank Lampard represented a welcome break from the past for many fans.
Under the Blues legend, a bridge was finally built between the club's excellent Academy and senior side, with a group of homegrown players forming the foundation of his plans.
Now Chelsea seemed to have real substance and stability, when previously there had been jibes about plastic flags, no history and a constant conveyor belt of foreign players and managers. With Lampard being sacked after 18 months on Monday, you're left wondering whether anything has really changed at all.
At the end of 2019, Academy Manager Neil Bath, a lifelong fan who's been with the club for almost 30 years, admitted: “It’s what we’ve been working towards for 15 years since we restructured the Academy in 2004.
“We’ve always been very clear that our job is not really to win youth trophies year after year, but to develop and produce Chelsea and Premier League players.”
A transfer ban had meant that Lampard wasn’t able to buy any new players, making the promotion of youth something of a necessity, but you still got the impression that this was something he really believed in. With former Academy coaches Jody Morris and Joe Edwards as his assistants, he also had the inside track on the best players that Bath's youth set-up had to offer.
“Frank’s appointment has been absolutely fundamental in creating these current opportunities," added Bath, "because he’s a manager who is prepared to look, trust and play individuals who deserve it, regardless of age."
A total of 44 Academy players have made their first-team debuts for Chelsea during the Abramovich era, with an impressive eight of those coming in just one season under Lampard. Indeed in that season, 2019/20, he gave more debuts to homegrown players than any other manager in the history of the club.
Yet more than that, he gave sustained opportunities to homegrown players, which had never happened before under Abramovich. Mason Mount racked up 37 first-team appearances last season, Reece James 24 and Callum Hudson-Odoi 22. Tammy Abraham, who’d been given his Chelsea debut back in May 2016 before being farmed out on loan for three seasons, returned and became a regular, playing 34 times.
All four had been with the club since the Under-8s.
In a statement via the LMA after being sacked on Monday, Lampard said: "I am proud of the achievements that we made - and I am proud of the Academy players that have made their step into the first team and performed so well. They are the future of the club."
Things were different this season, of course. Where last term the club exceeded expectations by qualifying for the Champions League and reaching the FA Cup final, this season they fell below them, sitting ninth in the table and winning only once in five league games.
And none of this is to say that Lampard didn’t welcome Chelsea’s summer spending spree, because he did; nor that Thomas Tuchel, his successor, can’t also be an excellent developer of youth, because he’s already proven that he can.
But in sacking Lampard after 18 months, following his first really bad spell as manager, the club appear to have reverted to type. That period of stability and substance seems something of a chimera now, replaced instead by a familiar emphasis on short-term results.
In this type of environment, a manager is often looking over his shoulder instead of looking ahead. Dermot Drummy, the renowned Chelsea youth coach who tragically took his own life in 2017, summed it up far better than I ever could in October 2016.
In explaining why no homegrown player since John Terry had established himself in Chelsea's first team at that stage - despite the club vanquishing all before them at youth level - he said: "Any manager that comes in has to hit the ground running fast. You lose a game and it’s alarm bells - but young players don't always instantly succeed.
"They can't look at their best youngster and plot where he is going to be in three years' time, because who will be the manager by then? What is the strategy at Chelsea? Is it season to season? The philosophy changes all the time. The instability is very tough on young players.
“But then again, do Chelsea need that, with the buying power they have? No, the buying power can paper over these things."