There is a palpable buzz around Chelsea’s academy at present. Parents, coaches and players share the sense of excitement, according to those who frequent the matches for the youth sides at the training ground in Cobham. ‘People suddenly feel like that if their son is good enough, he’s going to get a chance in the first team,’ said one watcher. ‘Before it was just about going out on loan.’
They’ve waited some time for these overnight sensations: around 15 years. Roman Abramovich insisted on building the nation’s best youth academy when he took over the club in 2003.It wasn’t really up and running until the new training ground, incorporating the academy facilities, was completed in 2007. Since then, the owner has watched his young protégés accumulate seven FA Youth Cups, including five in the last six years.
What he hadn’t seen, until the tentative inclusion of Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the first team last season, was anyone graduate to become a senior, established professional. Many were tipped to make to walk across the beautifully manicured footpaths from the academy to the first team headquarters, a literal pathway of around 30 yards at Cobham but seemingly, at times, a million miles apart.
Frank Lampard says he is not surprised how well Tammy Abraham has started the season
Gael Kakuta, Amiens’ left winger, earned Chelsea their first ever transfer ban (which was lifted on appeal) such was his promise when they recruited him as a teen from Lens: all that trouble for six increasingly far-flung loans moves and first-team six appearances. Those who saw him play still can’t work out how he never made it.
Josh McEachran was another touted by no less than Carlo Ancelotti. He recently spoke of the grinding disappointment of starting new season afresh at Chelsea only to be told you were ‘with the loan group again.’ Now 26, he is trialling with Birmingham City. There are many tales like this.
Yet last weekend it was as though all those years of work had crystallised in one game, when Chelsea tore through Wolves. There was Fikayo Tomori, a centre half, opening the scoring with a stunning strike from outside the box. Mason Mount, who recently made his England debut, finished it all off with the fifth goal.
In-between was the hat-trick from Tammy Abraham, meaning all of Chelsea’s Premier League goals have been scored by academy graduates this season. Abraham’s third was astonishing. Like a re-incarnation of Fernando Torres, he took the ball down held off Conor Coady and then simply burst past him, his pace and aggression seemingly unstoppable. Today’s opponents Liverpool would recognise that style from Torres at his best.
The Chelsea fans who chant Abraham’s name now saw a different version of the Spaniard and they simply appreciate a centre forward making a nonsense of the supposed curse of being Chelsea’s No.9: Torres, Radamel Falcao, Chris Sutton, Gonzalo Higuain and Alvaro Morata have all suffered in that shirt. Abraham wears it lightly.
Frank Lampard insists none of this, including the sublime skill which led to Abraham’s third, has particularly taken him aback. ‘I wasn’t surprised because I’ve seen Tammy do that in training. I do think he has got that, said Lampard. ‘On different occasions he can pull the ball out of the sky, do a bit of skill …if you watch his game you’ll see that in him. He does have that ability. That bit of magic is something pretty special.’
And Lampard was comfortable enough to raise the bar for Abraham ahead of today’s Liverpool game, evoking the example of Didier Drogba. Abraham has eight goals, scored against Norwich, Sheffield United and Wolves but he missed key chances against Manchester United on the opening day of the season and against Liverpool in the UEFA Super Cup.
The 21-year-old scored a sublime hat-trick at Wolves to take his Premier League tally to seven
‘It’s normal that the top strikers are judged on goals, and the next level of that is: do you score goals against the big teams,’ said Lampard. ‘I understand that because against someone like [Virgil] Van Dijk, a defence like Liverpool, a team like Liverpool, maybe it’s harder to create chances.
‘So it’s what can you do individually to try and create them, and how clinical can you be after that. He’s shown great signs this season but it will be another test on the way and it’s not the be all and end all day and we make our judgements after this. But for the top strikers like Didier, we all remember the amount of times he scored in finals and semi-finals and really important games and I think, quite rightly, players are judged on that
‘The thing I love about Tammy is his enthusiasm. He takes every day like it’s a challenge and a happy challenge. He wants to come in with a smile on his face and wants to score goals in training and be the best he can be. I think if you’ve got that attitude, you’ve got a great chance, because we know he has the talent.’
Lampard pushed praise, rightly, to the likes of Neil Bath, the academy director, who must have felt like he was toiling in vain for years. ‘The picture here [is] wrong [if it’s] as if I am the saviour of the academy,’ said Lampard. ‘That work has been done by Neil and his staff, my job is to do best I can with the players that are in front of me and I arrived at a club with a lot of young talent. Some of it hasn’t touched the first team yet.’
Reece James, the 19-year-old right back currently injured, will be next up. Lampard namechecks Conor Gallagher, 19, a midfielder on loan at Charlton and EFL Player of the Month, and Billy Gilmour, 18, the Glaswegian with a delightful touch in midfield who came on against Norwich. Centre half Marc Guehi, 19, was on the bench against Valencia.
Lampard would like to see Abraham develop into a big-game player like Didier Drogba was
Yet whilst the hard work has been done by academy staff, there is no doubt that the lead from the most important coach at the club is crucial. Lampard knows as much, having been raised at West Ham under Harry Redknapp, his uncle and first manager. ‘When you look back at West Ham, the academy goes back many years ago to the great World Cup side [of Bobby Moore, Sir Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters],’ said Lampard. ‘The reason it came back was Harry Redknapp, who pushed and pushed it. The minute you take your foot of the gas, it goes.’
So Lampard has taken time to socialise with the academy staff. The renewed sense of purpose amongst parents and trainees is due to the fact that Lampard is regularly at games. (Maurizio Sarri rarely was). Players are often brought across to train with the first team or even to travel with the first team squad as a reward for good performances.
Lampard’s staff includes Jody Morris, Chris Jones and Joe Edwards, all of whom worked at Chelsea’s academy in the past. Where once there was a palpable disconnect, now there is detailed knowledge of the players and personalities coming through.
So when Lampard went to Derby as manager last season with Morris and Jones, they knew where to turn for loan signings. Mason Mount was perhaps well signposted but Fikayo Tomori was less of a name outside Cobham. But Morris and Jones knew him. ‘I was aware of him, just from a slight distance, being aware of the players in the Academy and youth team at the time who were playing at a good level,’ said Lampard. ‘Myself and John always tried to keep an eye on the young lads coming through.
The Chelsea manager was also complimentary about young defender Fikayo Tomori
‘At Derby it happened nicely for me because we needed a centre back. I made the call. Having known someone and Jody worked closely with him as well, we felt we were in a good place to know his attributes and know where we could hopefully improve.’
It also meant when David Luiz was insisting on a transfer deadline day move, Lampard was willing to take a calculated risk and let the Brazilian go. ‘I just trust in him [Tomori] as a player. The way he trains every day is the kind of thing I want to see. I wanted him to stay as part of the squad. It wouldn’t have mattered who might have gone or not. Where better a place to play than at the club he has come through at?’
With four A Level completed whilst at the Chelsea academy, where children are schooled by tutors from the age of 14, he is also a shining example of academic potential the club offers. Tomori is currently studying for a degree in business management.
That Lampard mantra was also crucial in the biggest academy news of the week, that Callum Hudson-Odoi has signed a five year deal. A year ago, the 18-year-old was growing increasingly desperate about his Chelsea future as Sarri initially downgraded him to the Under 23 team and then, despite bringing him back to the first team, pretty much ignored him for five months. He wanted to join Bayern Munich as Chelsea was no place to develop.
Lampard was crucial in getting 18-year-old wonderkid Callum Hudson-Odoi to sign a new deal
The first thing Lampard did when he was appointed was speak to Hudson-Odoi and spell out his place at the club and in the first team. That made a huge difference. In the protracted contract talks between the player’s family and the club, the mood music changed almost immediately, from wanting Hudson-Odoi to leave to join a club where he could develop to focusing on finding an agreement to let him stay and play under Lampard.
Of course the ultimate irony is that, having planned this for years, it has taken a transfer ban to push Chelsea into jump starting the integration of their academy into first team. And Lampard would likely not be in charge had there been money to spend. Whether Max Allegri, had he come from Juventus, would have championed Abraham, Mount and Tomori is a moot point. And it is yet to be seen whether this brave, new world will survive a trophy-less season, an early Champions League exit and the club finishing outside the top four. History says not.
Still, for now, Chelsea, a club synonymous with being at the forefront of embracing the early wave of expensive imports into the Premier League and an organisation which has epitomised the globalisation of the English game, is going back to its roots, And if they start a match this season, as seems likely, with Tomori, James, Loftus-Cheek, Mount, Hudson-Odoi and Abraham, then more than half their team will be home grown and the plaudits well deserved.