‘Billy Gilmour and Tino Anjorin give Chelsea hope of an even brighter future’ was the headline of a feature in The Independent, which rightly lauded the performances of full debutant Anjorin and the “outstanding” Gilmour in the 1-1 draw with Krasnodar.
But what is a very bright future for Chelsea is not necessarily one so appealing to those individuals and the rest of the club’s young talent, who were either too young, too unlucky or not quite good enough to make the most of a door to the first team that last season was as wide as it’s been in 20 years but now appears as firmly shut as ever.
Mason Mount and Reece James are now permanent fixtures in Chelsea’s first XI, while Tammy Abraham is in an ongoing battle with Olivier Giroud for the No.9 position. Mount and James in particular are wonderfully gifted footballers. But they were all fortunate: they returned to the club or emerged from the youth system at exactly the right time, when Chelsea couldn’t make transfers and were left with little option but to rely on them.
It’s now impossible to know whether those players would have broken through in normal, unconstrained circumstances. James probably would have done: he’s forced his way past a club legend in Cesar Azpilicueta. But Mount? Abraham?
Two decades of zip, nada, nowt from the academy to the first team would suggest that last season was the anomaly; the lavish spending in the summer signalled Chelsea’s desire to quickly return to their trophy-laden ways – ultimately, inevitably to the detriment of those that haven’t quite broken through in time. It’s a dead-eyed focus on glory more borne by Frank Lampard than anyone.
“I never wanted us to become an ‘academy club’, because those stories are great for five minutes and those debuts you are handing out are really nice. But then it moves very quickly to where people are asking ‘can you win games now?’”
Lampard knows the pressure to win at Chelsea outstrips all else and their model of hiring and firing managers and buying and selling rather than nurturing has proven so successful it seems silly to change it now.
But what of Fikayo Tomori? Who appeared to do little wrong as first-choice centre-back but now finds himself as fifth. What of Callum Hudson-Odoi? Worth £70million to Bayern Munich; apparently worth more to Chelsea yet not worthy of a regular starting spot. What of Billy Gilmour? Brilliant but blocked by the even more brilliant N’Golo Kante. What of Ethan Ampadu, Conor Gallagher and the many, many others out on loan?
You might think: f**k’em, either they’re good enough or they’re not. And that is perfectly reasonable. Football is a cut-throat industry and Chelsea’s blades are as sharp as anyone’s.
But the problem is that Chelsea look set to return to a situation where they have no way to gauge whether an academy player is good enough or not.
For example, they now know that Mount is a superstar, but that wasn’t clear for the majority of last season. He’s grown into a role in Chelsea’s team by playing consistently in Chelsea’s team. The long list of players the fans would have preferred to play in Mount’s position last season would now consist of very few names indeed.
Having granted that opportunity the club now have one of their own as the heartbeat of their midfield rather than a multi-million pound signing who may claim he ‘dreamed’ of playing for Chelsea, but in reality couldn’t really give two sh*ts if the money’s good.
It’s a conundrum to which there is no real answer. Either these players stay and hope to impress enough in cameo appearances to shift what appears an immovable weight of expensive alternatives in front of them. Or they head out on loan to a club with a different ethos and playing style and hope to catch the manager’s eye from afar. Neither sounds great.
The harsh reality for these Chelsea boys is that they missed their big chance, largely through no fault of their own. They may well make it and become Blues legends of the future, but the odds that were so briefly in their favour are once again stacked against them.
Will Ford is on Twitter