One of the favourite criticisms of Chelsea over the past few seasons has been the lack of home-grown talent in the system. John Terry is the last regular starter to come out of the academy, with the club seemingly preferring to let Roman Abramovich's wallet do the recruiting. Since spending money is considered immoral by fans of clubs who don't spend money, this meant a lot of harping about how the Blues were incapable of developing their own talent. The fact that they started spending serious money on the academy only added more fuel to the fire.
But now something interesting has happened. One of the kids has come good. In case you didn't notice, Ryan Bertrand* has moved from a peripheral figure in the team, a mere understudy to Ashley Cole, into a rather more prominent role. He's already had two starts so far this season, and three of Chelsea's last four competitive fixtures (including the Champions League final) have seen Bertrand operating as a left winger.
*Acquired from Gillingham when he was 15.
Against Bayern Munich, the explanation for Bertrand's inclusion in the lineup was that Ramires was suspended and Florent Malouda was injured. Against Wigan, we were missing Marko Marin and Ramires again. Newcastle at home, however, was a different story. The only forced absentee was Marin. Bertrand started anyway, and was superb.
Sure, you might argue that the reason that Roberto di Matteo used Bertrand on Saturday was that he wanted to ensure that Ashley Cole was prevented from having to deal with Hatem Ben Arfa by himself. But if he had been presented with similar circumstances in, say, March, di Matteo's solution would almost certainly have been to play Ramires on the left side -- just see how the Brazilian was used against Napoli in order to curtail Christian Maggio.
This time last year, the hot rumour was that Chelsea were in (and in hard) for Porto left back Alvaro Perreira. Fortunately, we didn't pursue that too seriously, but the idea was to find a replacement for the departed Yuri Zhirkov, someone who could cover everywhere down the left side without too big of a dropoff. It turns out that we may have already had him sitting around.
No, Bertrand is not the new Ashley Cole, who in his prime was one of the best left backs that European football has ever produced. But it's looking increasingly like he's a long-term solution for the club on the left hand side. For those of you who insist that the academy needs to graduate players to the first team to consider it worthwhile, well, we're seeing it happen right now.
The Bertrand story is also a good reminder of the sort of development that players need to get onto the Chelsea squad. It's taken him no fewer than five loans and seven years in the system to start to make an impact. Remember that when Michael Emanalo is castigated for sending Josh McEachran and friends out on loan. Those loans allowed Bertrand to get good enough that he can be relied on -- sitting on the bench wouldn't have.