On Monday, Chelsea’s U-18 team won the FA Youth Cup for a record-tying fifth time in a row, matching the legendary Busby Babes of the early-to-mid 1950s, many of whom would go on to win back-to-back First Division titles at an average of 22 with Manchester United. (Many of them tragically perished in the Munich air disaster in 1958 so we’ll never know just how great they might have become in the end.)
That piece of history becomes more relevant as the obvious question is asked over and over again: when will these youngsters make the leap from all-conquering youth teams into the Chelsea first-team? Since John Terry, only one player has made it through the system all the way to the pinnacle, and that’s Andreas Christensen.
If we were to rank the most promising current and former youth prospects, at a guess we’d put 22 year-old Ruben Loftus-Cheek at the top of the list of eligibles, with 20 year-old Tammy Abraham a step behind. Go down a level and an age group and we find 19 year-old Mason Mount making a name for himself in the Eredivisie. (We’ve no idea where to rank talented but troubled Charly Musonda.)
Go down one more level to players still in the academy proper, and one name jumps out. Callum Hudson-Odoi is a tender seventeen years of age but in many ways he has the body and the game of a fully grown man. The attacking midfielder terrorized Arsenal’s defenders in the first leg of the Youth Cup. In the second leg he scored twice, including this lovely effort.
CHO had ten goals and seven assists in the seven-match Cup run. He’s even made four appearances for Antonio Conte’s senior team this season, for a total of 81 minutes.
It’s pretty obvious that he’s at a level that’s above his peers. If he’s going to develop, he needs to play against tougher competition. But where? For whom? At 17, is he too young to be thrown out of the nest and into the cold, cruel world of the loan army, let alone the senior team?
His youth team manager, Jody Morris, is of two minds. Basically, Hudson-Odoi has the talent, but maybe not the maturity, which is hardly surprising given that he’s still just a teenager.
“He has still got a lot to do [to become a complete player]. He will get a lot of plaudits because he has shown in glimpses that he has got real, real quality. He showed in other glimpses that he needs to mature and he needs to follow instructions.
”He has got a lot to learn, and so have a lot of players on the pitch, but he has certainly got a chance, if he keeps his feet on the ground and matures properly. There’s a young kid there that has got a fantastic amount of talent.
”Nobody wants to see him succeed more than me, some of the things he does with a football is fantastic at times but you also want to shake him at times.”
Arguably, maturity (or the lack of it) is what makes or breaks a lot of young players whom Chelsea send out on loan. Musonda has talent but obvious problems handling adversity. Mason Mount buckled down and worked when he wasn’t starting at the beginning of the season.
But there are no obvious answers and no foolproof plans in player development. What might work for one player, might not work for another.
“We will need to see what the manager thinks come the summer about what goes on because he has been in and around the first team a lot. I don’t think just one person makes that decision.”
As far as Moris is concerned, the decision has to involve more than just the player’s talent on the pitch.
“I think you have to also see how things develop, even from such a small time from tonight until the beginning of the season. The end of pre-season, because sometimes the kids can have a little mood swing that lasts quite a few months.
”You think maybe it is not the best thing for them to go on loan at the minute, but there are also some others that maybe come to the front of the queue and you go, ‘you know what, a loan is exactly what this person needs’. So yes, there’s players out in that group that are certainly capable of playing in men’s football.
”A lot of them played in the Checkatrade Trophy for Joe Edwards and Andy Myers against lower league teams, but they are still men and that’s why we play them in there. There’s some of them that maybe it is a little bit early for them.”
-Jody Morris; source: Goal
It feels like there’s a lot riding on this generation of youth players. Roman Abramovich is trying to build a new financial model at Chelsea, one that doesn’t strictly rely on his deep pockets. He’d like to grow his own players and that’s been a major factor in his enormous investment in the academy. So far, there’s been scant payoff at the senior level. But if one of more of the names we’ve mentioned — or indeed if any of the youngsters — break through it will validate his plans, patience and financial commitment.
Mount, Abraham and Loftus-Cheek have been released into the wild and, to varying degrees, seem to be succeeding. The next test case is Callum Hudson-Odoi. He’s a special player — for his age. A lot of people will be watching anxiously to see how he’s handled and how he develops.