When Armando Broja took to the pitch for Chelsea in their 4-0 victory against Everton, he became their eighth academy debutant of the season. This was a club record for the number of debuts made in one season. Frank Lampard has been lauded for his introduction of younger players but will it actually have an impact on the club?
There are both emotional and practical reasons for wanting academy products to succeed at their parent clubs. Economically, they allow teams to avoid spending hundreds of millions of pounds on transfer fees, as well as potentially saving on wages. The Premier League’s homegrown player rule which requires teams to have not more than 17 international players in their squad also makes English or England-based academy products beneficial.
These players are also often perceived as having a stronger loyalty to the club, perhaps having been childhood supporters, and tend to have a natural affinity with fans as a result. There is an extra sense of pride when you know a player loves your team as much as you do.
Nowhere is that more apparent than the most successful homegrown side of the Premier League era, Alex Ferguson’s “Class of 92”. But the success of this group of players did not come from one break out year. The 1994/95 season was the stand-out for notable debuts as David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Phil Neville all made their first starts in the team, but others didn’t stick quite as well.
Keith Gillespie left for Newcastle as part of the Andy Cole deal, ultimately freeing up space for Beckham to make the right wing his own. Kevin Pilkington moved made 400 appearances for various clubs in the lower leagues, whilst Simon Davies ended up plying his trade in the Welsh league. Even in a homegrown team as successful as this, some players inevitably slipped through the net.
Such is the way of things in the Premier League over the past decade has meant that teams instead have looked to purchase proven players rather than promote from within. The reliance on the loan system also allows clubs to see if players can prove themselves on less intense stages, rather than attempting to integrate them into the first team from the youth set up. Academy players have had to hope for an early round League or FA Cup appearance at best.
Southampton had six academy debuts in the 2014/15 season – the most beside Chelsea this decade. Of these six, only one (Matt Targett) still plays professional top flight football and only one (Jack Hesketh) is still at Southampton, and even he is currently on loan at Lincoln City. The remaining four (Ryan Seager, Jason McCarthy, Dominic Gape and Lloyd Isgrove) have ended up playing at lower league teams, having only played a couple of competitive matches for the squad.
The other team who have continued to promote youth players, perhaps unsurprisingly given their history, is Manchester United. In both Louis van Gaal’s final season in 2015/16 and Jose Mourinho’s first in 2016/17, five academy players made their first Premier League starts. Of those ten, two have become first-team regulars: Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay. Unlike in Southampton’s case, there is also some chance that others might still break through.
Angel Gomes is still only 19 despite making his debut in 16/17 when he became the youngest player to start for United since 1953. Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah are also players who were in that group who will hope they might still have an opportunity to be more than a flash in the pan.
Yet players like Donald Love, who was most recently seen scoring an awful own goal for Shrewsbury against Liverpool in the FA Cup, and James Weir who now plays in Slovakia, those brief appearances do not necessarily turn into greatness.
The brevity of those run outs might be the key in determining whether playing lots of academy players is the key to success. Managers can and will always put players on for five minute bursts towards the end of the season. It is an easy win with the fans and can help younger players believe they have a future at the club. The greatest indicator of whether they will have longer term success might be in the situations they play in.
It is telling that the Manchester United team who are the blueprint in this situation also integrated academy products over a number of different seasons. Players like Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori actually made their Chelsea debuts back in 2015/16 under Guus Hiddink, whilst Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have cemented themselves over the past couple of years.
There will also always be players that drop off. One of Chelsea’s debutants this season has already moved on. Tariq Lamptey joined Brighton in January, unconvinced that he would have the opportunity to move past Cesar Azpilicueta or Reece James in the battle for the right back position. That was despite an impressive performance against Arsenal over Christmas where Lamptey helped turn the game in Chelsea’s favour.
Chelsea have waited a long time for any youth products to make a significant impact in their team. Despite five consecutive FA Youth Cup wins, it is only their transfer ban which has given the younger players the opportunity to play more regularly. With such a large number joining, it is a given that some will not make it all the way. But even if only three or four maintain their place, Chelsea will have managed something incredibly rare. They will have used one season to create the backbone of a side which could stay consistent for years to come.
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