By mid-afternoon, Chelsea might just have one trophy left to play for this season if things go as badly at Stamford Bridge against Manchester United today in the FA Cup as they did against Southampton on Saturday. But those Chelsea supporters for whom hope springs eternal will only have to wait until 6.30 this evening for another shot at glory.
Chelsea's Under-19s play their Aston Villa counterparts this evening in the final of the NextGen series, a kind of junior Champions League that sounds like a pharmaceutical brand. A pity that the organisers have chosen a bog of a pitch near Lake Como to play the competition's latter stages but it does offer an insight into the highly competitive, cut-throat world of European elite youth development.
Three years ago, Chelsea Under-18s beat Villa's in the two-legged FA Youth Cup final and my Monday column then asked how many of those Chelsea players could expect a first-team future. The club's response was that I should stop being so negative. Sadly, it was not an idle concern. Of the XI that started both legs, seven have already left the club. All four who remain are out on loan.
Of those, the centre-back Jeffrey Bruma has followed a well-trodden path to Hamburg, where Frank Arnesen, Chelsea's former director of football, now works. Sam Walker and Billy Clifford are on loan at Colchester United. The big hope from that team, Josh McEachran, is finding his feet in the Championship at Middlesbrough. He is potentially a future Chelsea player. But there can be no certainties.
One is tempted to say, in the nicest possible way, that the 11 talented lads who play tonight will have to face up to the same realities one day, despite having reached the final of a tournament that has featured, among others, teams from Barcelona, Ajax, Juventus, Athletic Bilbao and Liverpool.
The consensus in football is that Chelsea's academy director, Neil Bath, runs an excellent operation and in Dermot Drummy, recruited from Arsenal, they have one of the country's most successful youth coaches. Their side who beat Arsenal in extra time in the NextGen semi-final featured six English-born boys, recruited from places like Welwyn Garden City, Luton and as local as Walham Green in west London.
Once prolific recruiters of foreign teenagers under Arnesen, Chelsea do less of that now, although the French Jérémie Boga is one of their leading Under-19 talents. They still poach from other English academies. But the likes of captain Lewis Baker and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have come through their system from the start. As usual, the one thing which the club that has everything cannot guarantee its boys is a chance in the first team.
On the wall in the foyer of the Chelsea academy is a version of the William Jennings Bryan quotation: "Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice." As the only man to finish second in three United States presidential elections, you might have thought that Bryan was one of those who put a little more store in chance – but I digress.
Unfortunately, for those young Chelsea players, it seems however much hard work they put into shaping their destiny, other factors beyond their control influence the outcome. Of the scores of academy players the club has developed, Ryan Bertrand is in the first-team squad. Nathaniel Chalobah, on loan at Watford, is the next great hope, but so many have got close and failed. Jack Cork, a Chelsea academy graduate, was in Southampton's side on Saturday.
The next manager this summer will be expected to achieve great things in precious little time and if he is going to take a kid from the academy then that kid had better be good.
Yet this academy has won two FA Youth Cups in the last three seasons (the club's first since 1961) and its team is in the semi-finals this year. Winning the NextGen Series, in spite of the absence of the likes of Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, would be another impressive achievement. The academy is doing its bit.
Nevertheless, an academy kid at Villa, tonight's opponents, has a much greater chance of making the first team. That policy has cost Villa dearly at times this season but it has been a brave punt. The fans have, by and large, supported it. That it is not to say that it guarantees success – none of the Villa side that lost the 2010 FA Youth Cup final have established themselves at the club yet – but without it, a player has no chance. As ever, producing young players who are good enough to play at Champions League level is hard. The Arsenal team that won the 2009 FA Youth Cup included Jack Wilshere, the best English player of his generation. He is one of five from that team still at the club, but one of only two, along with Francis Coquelin, not out on loan.
Recently, Arsenal's approach has changed. The XI that lost the NextGen semi-final to Chelsea was largely made up of boys brought in from European clubs in the last two years. Of the three Englishmen only Nico Yennaris and Chuba Akpom have been developed rather than bought in. It makes you wonder whether this policy was partly behind Liam Brady's decision to step down as academy director.
The stakes are getting higher and the level required even to be a squad player in the Premier League creeps ever upwards. But it is not impossible to get players over that final hurdle from the academy to the first team – just look at clubs like Barcelona, Ajax or even Southampton. At Chelsea, they at last seem to have everything in place, apart from that final leap of faith that every kid needs from his club.
English football owes the Old Firm no favours
It is the old story that will not go away, but now the suggestion is that Rangers and Celtic have David Cameron's support in their bid to join the Premier League. If ever there was a daft reason to do something then surely it would be to shore up the faltering career of a Prime Minister trying to gather support for his position in the Scottish independence referendum.
But there are plenty more reasons not to insert the Old Firm into English football. It is not fair on every other English club in the hierarchy for a start, and why should they be allowed to begin in the Conference Premier? There are plenty of English clubs with long histories that would love a free pass to that stage. Scottish football has its problems, but they are not for English football to resolve.
O'Neill is the man with a great future behind him
Martin O'Neill's sacking on Saturday night was a reminder of how quickly the window of opportunity closes on even the talented managers. Before facing Celtic on pre-season tour in Seattle almost 10 years ago there was an awkward moment when Sir Alex Ferguson reacted badly to being asked about the possibility of O'Neill, then Celtic manager, succeeding him at Old Trafford. O'Neill was sat next to Ferguson at the time.
Then, it seemed like a distinct possibility. He was most national newspapers' choice to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson as England manager in 2006 and was interviewed but lost out to Steve McClaren. He has done things his own way and not been afraid to leave clubs but, to men like David Moyes, O'Neill's career is a prime example that the right chance has to come along at the right time.Reuse content