This week, Manchester City unveiled the glass and steel of their £200m academy. On Wednesday night, Chelsea will show off something even more tangible; the flesh and blood of a youth-team product.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek, a 6ft 4in midfielder so highly regarded that Chelsea offered him a £18,000-a-week salary at 17 (rising to £34,000 with bonuses), will on Wednesday make his first-team debut against Sporting Lisbon at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League.
It is quite a stage, rather bigger, noted Jose Mourinho, than playing in front of 1,000 people in Uefa’s youth league, as Loftus-Cheek did in Lisbon a few weeks ago. While the fact that Chelsea have already qualified for the knockout stages as group-winners has influenced Mourinho’s decision to blood the 18-year-old, he hopes Loftus-Cheek’s arrival is the start of something big.
“Every manager in the world wants to bring young people up,” said Mourinho. “Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t. I can compare my first spell here, and now the quality of the young players is clearly better. Tomorrow (Wednesday) is Ruben’s day, but I feel it’s always the academy’s day more than his. It’s a clear message that the first team is sending to them: work, and the right moment and the right talent always arrives.”
No youngster made the breakthrough at Chelsea during Mourinho’s first spell at the club, but he has brought through talent elsewhere and picked out Carlos Alberto (Porto), Davide Santon (Internazionale) and Raphael Varane (Real Madrid).
Chelsea, however, have not produced a young player for their first team in a decade despite spending heavily on recruitment, both in terms of a scouting set-up and transfer/compensation fees.
Newcastle 2 Chelsea 1 player ratings
Newcastle 2 Chelsea 1 player ratings
1/9 Daryl Janmaat - 7
Good performance from the Dutchman, involved in the attacks and pacing the left side.
2/9 Jack Colback - 7
Best chance in the first half and had a crucial pass in the run up to Cisse’s second goal. Played a very solid game.
3/9 Mousa Sissoko - 7
Picked up his second suspension in three games but formed a dangerous duo for the Chelsea defence with Ameobi on the left side.
4/9 Ayoze Perez - 7
Clever pass to Colback which nearly saw him putting Newcastle ahead in the first half. Very good defending from the striker.
5/9 Papiss Cisse - 8
Does what a striker needs to do. Two goals in 25 minutes, Cisse proved he is indispensable for Newcastle.
6/9 Branislav Ivanovic - 5
Far from the defender’s best play. Had trouble coping with Newcastle’s attack.
7/9 Cesc Fabregas - 6
Good free-kick delivery to set up Drogba goal, did his job well in the midfield.
8/9 Willian - 6
Good performance from the Brazillian. Looked strong and had few serious challenges.
9/9 Oscar - 5
Good chance with his bicycle kick towards the end of the first half but did not have a massive impact on Chelsea’s play.
This was intended to short-circuit the process by raiding other clubs’ academies but it has merely produced disappointment for boys like Gaël Kakuta, Filipe Oliveira and Ben Sahar. Chelsea have been so unsuccessful at bringing through players, there has been speculation that their academy is merely a ruse to get around Uefa’s Financial Fair Play regulations. Spending on youth development is not counted in the figures – so a fee received for Romelu Lukaku can be set against that spent on Diego Costa.
So Mourinho was either mistaken or disingenuous when he said: “If you don’t bring kids through the academy, the best thing is to close the academy. If the kids are not good, close the door and use the money to buy players.”
Chelsea’s academy costs £8m a year to run, and with most fees received less than £2m for players such as Scott Sinclair, Patrick van Aanholt and Fabio Borini, that is not cost-effective. There is a lot of hope invested in Loftus-Cheek and his peers faring better than the previous wave, which included Josh McEachran and Nathaniel Chalobah, who seem to be perpetually on loan.
The club were confident enough in his maturity to put Loftus-Cheek up to face the press. One blanches slightly to hear John Terry described as a “role model” given his rap sheet. But when it comes to progressing from youth-team hopeful to first-team regular – a journey Terry made 14 years ago – he is the only example Chelsea’s youngsters have.
Mourinho has given Terry, Willian and Eden Hazard the week off but Costa will play as he feels the striker needs to sharpen his match fitness. While Loftus-Cheek will probably be on the bench, the 20-year-old defender Kurt Zouma should start.
Since he cost £12m from St Etienne in January he can hardly be called a youth product. But Loftus-Cheek can. “An English player, 18, completely made in Chelsea...” said Mourinho. “If he does it and if he succeeds, it’s good.”
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