Football: It's far from over now, Baby Blues

Nick Callow says Chelsea's football flowering show will take time to flourish
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The Independent Online
MARK NICHOLLS scored twice for the Chelsea first team last week and is hoping those goals and his all-round impressive performance will be sufficient to persuade Ruud Gullit that he should be considered for a starting place at Everton today. His quest should be aided by the suspension of Roberto di Matteo, but he is by no means certain of his fate.

"Luca [Vialli] got dropped after scoring four against Barnsley, so why should I be any different?" said Nicholls without irony. "My aim was to make the first-team squad this season and to play a few games. Just because I have achieved that doesn't mean I should expect or demand more. I know the rules and what I have to do."

Football speak? Apparently not. Nicholls, 20, is a young professional with the level head of an experienced international and the ambition to outstrip any deficiencies in his ability with hard work and determination.

He was a schoolboy, local to the club's Harlington training ground, when he joined Chelsea in the same year that Glenn Hoddle and Graham Rix began the Stamford Bridge revolution almost five years ago. Rix was Hoddle's youth coach and has helped guide not only Nicholls but also his fellow youth players Jody Morris, Paul Hughes and Nick Crittenden through to the first team. All have made their mark amid the multi- million-pound foreign superstars and Rix, now Gullit's right-hand man, insists youth will continue to play a big role.

Just as I begin to suggest that their development could be hindered by Zola, Vialli and company, Rix explained: "It means the young players have to be even better, so that they can play with the Zolas. We're no longer just filling places with homegrown kids, we're making them better players."

Rix pointed to Manchester United's success with home produce who have emerged from a system instigated by Brian Kidd some 10 years ago. He admitted the Chelsea version was still some years behind the Manchester example but said it was their intention to emulate Fergie's Fledglings with the Baby Blues.

"It hurt me that we had to go to France to find a sweeper. Franck Leboeuf has been magnificent for us, but we want to produce our own Leboeuf, our own Zola and so on. Expensive signings should be the icing on the cake because we want the basis of the Chelsea first team to be home-grown. The demands of the modern game mean we must strive for instant success but we are trying to build a club underneath it so it can survive when Ruud Gullit and Graham Rix are long gone.

"Glenn [Hoddle] has got to take a lot of credit, and Ruudy has carried it on. At the moment, we have to make every opportunity of the way the first team are playing and turning us into a high-profile club, but the beauty of that is that it helps us attract more of the best kids.

"It is a great attraction when we can get them along to meet Gianfranco Zola and say, 'If you're good enough, you'll play with him.' That is the standard we are now setting, and it is a form of encouragement to them, not a deterrent."

Rix bumped into one of his former charges when Chelsea played at Aston Villa recently. The youngster opted for the Midlands because he feared he would never get on in Chelsea's star-studded era, but is now still on YTS forms at Villa Park and had to suffer as he watched his former Chelsea colleagues Morris, Hughes and Nicholls. "The fact is that they have been given opportunities at Chelsea and had the nerve and ability to take them. Ruudy has proved that he is not frightened about playing youngsters and it is up to them to stay in the team."

Nicholls, a forward who can also play in an attacking midfield position, admitted he never imagined being a team-mate of World Cup players when he joined the club. "Nor did I," added Rix, "but he has shown what can be achieved with the right attitude. I have worked with Mark since we both joined at roughly the same time. I have seen him develop into an accomplished player, compared to how he used to be, and he deserves everything he is getting.

"Nicholls has watched, listened and learned from everything I have told him over the years. He has done really well in every game and he is getting better. I can't say he is a regular at the moment, but he has the potential to become one.

"Some of the young boys come to me and ask why they aren't playing first- team football. I say 'who would you rather play for, with all due respect, Brentford, Fulham or Chelsea? No contest, is there?" Rix believes the youth revolution could be five to ten years from having an impact on English football, but he is determined that it will happen even if it means a future Chelsea coaching staff will reap the rewards of today's efforts.

"My dream is to win something with eight to nine homegrown players in the team. With the youngsters we've mentioned you can add Frank Sinclair, Eddie Newton and Michael Duberry as others who have already made it here and I hope people are patient enough to see the rest come through. United and Ajax in Holland have more or less done that already and clubs such as ours and Arsenal are trying to do the same."