How is this for a Chelsea XI to play Leicester this afternoon: Lenny Pidgeley; William Gallas, Robert Huth, Joel Kitamirike, Valerio Di Cesare; Jesper Gronkjaer, Alexis Nicolas, Frank Lampard, Joe Keenan; Carlton Cole and Mikael Forssell? Bearing in mind the current multi-million-pound squad, such a line-up may seem alien. But, had a Russian billionaire not bought Chelsea last summer and, in so doing, saved them from certain administration at the 11th hour, most of the club's youth players would have been needed in the first team this season.
Hard as it is to fathom, especially after Roman Abramovich's £110m spending spree of July and August, Chelsea really were in dire straits at the end of last season. "We lost seven first-team players in the summer," says Gwyn Williams, Chelsea's academy director, "and we didn't have a penny to spend. Our only option was to bring the kids through and hope our senior players got as few injuries as possible."
Abramovich's roubles have changed all that. For the better, of course, because the club can build for a bright future; but for the worse, too, because the development of Chelsea's youth players will now be stifled by the big-money arrivals. "In the short term at least, a lot of the academy kids will struggle to break through into the current first team," explains Williams, who has been at the club in various roles since 1979. "In the long term, though, the injection of money means that we can hopefully build the best teaching facilities in the world."
Long before Glen Johnson left West Ham to become the first player to be signed in the Abramovich era, preparations had been made for the Asia Cup - a round-robin competition in Malaysia last summer which also included Newcastle United and Birmingham City. The squad had been picked and included six reserve-team players: Huth, Nicolas, Keenan, Sebastien Kneissl, Cole and Kitamirike. Six months on, and only Huth has appeared for the first team this season, having played eight times in central defence. The others, including the talented Keenan, who has a terrific left foot, may never get the chance.
Williams is confident that the influx of world-class players will only help the youngsters push themselves even further to succeed, but one cannot help wonder whether the new regime is squeezing the life out of the academy. Steve Clarke does not think so. The former Chelsea defender, now the Under-19s coach, believes that his protégés will rise to the challenge. "The reality of the current situation," he says, "is that young Chelsea players are going to have to be better than ever before. But that is hardly a bad thing. That's not real pressure. Believe me, pressure is when you go 21 games without winning and get relegated [as Chelsea were with Clarke in the team back in 1988]. The way I look at it, Abramovich's arrival has created a challenge for every-one at the academy. It's a challenge for me, for Mick McGiven [the reserves coach], and for all the students."
Clarke, who spent 11 years at the club before hanging up his boots in the wake of the 1998 Cup-Winners' Cup victory, adds: "Some people might view the changes in a negative way, but not me. I see this as a fantastic opportunity for the club to raise standards. We desperately need to copy Liverpool, Man U and Arsenal by creating our own training ground with our own academy buildings. That will come soon, but in the meantime it's up to the kids to make a decision now: they can either take on the challenge or give up. Hopefully, the majority will opt for the former, because if they do Chelsea will grow even stronger.
"It will not happen overnight, but, as we use Abramovich's money to bring in the best teenagers from around Europe, we will slowly build an empire. I would say that in five years' time, Chelsea could be made up predominantly of home-grown players, albeit of different nationalities."
It is strange that even before they started buying their current success, Chelsea had a poor image where youth development was concerned. And yet the club have an excellent tradition for bringing their own players through the ranks. During his first spell in charge of the academy, or youth system as it was known until 1998, McGiven produced a strong crop of players that included Frank Sinclair, Michael Duberry, Graeme Le Saux, Eddie Newton, Craig Burley, Andy Myers, Graham Stuart and Muzzy Izzet.
"Despite what some might think," Williams says, "we've always been as good at bringing kids through as Man United or Arsenal. Not all our kids went on to have great careers at Chelsea, but all have forged new lives for themselves at other clubs. Someone like Muzzy [Izzet] has been a real star at Leicester for the last six years, and we take great pride in that." For the record, Chelsea will also take 50 per cent of any transfer fee involving the player during the January window.
McGiven's second crop, whom he started developing in 1996 on his return from a senior coaching stint at Ipswich Town, have been even more successful. Apart from the obvious highlight of John Terry, the young centre-back who is now a regular England international, others such as Jon Harley, Jody Morris, Sam Della Bona, Forssell and Cole have built good playing reputations in the game.
Perhaps this is due to the fact that Chelsea's approach to the reserve team is different to that of other clubs. Rather than a place for the first-team players to get a run-out, reserves matches are used almost exclusively to give youth-team members experience. "At Chelsea, the reserves are the final step of the learning process," explains Clarke, who spent a difficult year as Ruud Gullit's No 2 at Newcastle in 2000 before returning to Chelsea in the spring of 2001.
"We regard these games as vital to the development of youngsters, and that is why we avoid cramming the team with senior players who can't get in the Premiership side. Obviously, if someone is coming back from injury it can be very useful, but otherwise we view the matches as dress rehearsals for the kids."
Williams, who now spends much of his time trawling the European leagues looking for young talent, is a great believer in Chelsea's approach. "Other clubs might have two youth teams or a bigger academy intake," he says, "but we feel that the key is quality, not quantity. There is no point in having a few really promising kids and a load of average players making up the numbers. Instead, we have a small and élite group who play for the Under-19s, then the reserves and then, hopefully, the senior side."
Hopefully. What the future really holds for these young Chelsea players, nobody knows. Clarke is aware that they may never get their chance in the first team. "What keeps me motivated and thinking positive, though," he says, "is that if the current dream suddenly ends tomorrow, then this club will be OK. We might not be challenging right at the top any more, but we'll have the players to help us. Whatever the club's financial future, the Chelsea kids are set for life."
Six of the best for the future
Robert Huth, 20: The most ripe of the bunch. Powerful German centre-back, who has already tasted first-team action and could eventually form a partnership with John Terry.
Filipe Oliveira, 19: Portuguese Under-19 forward, signed from FC Porto, earmarked as a Gianfranco Zola in the making.
Joe Keenan, 21: Possibly the most exciting prospect. Dynamic midfielder with a terrific left foot. And, yes, he is English.
Alexis Nicolas, 20: Despite exotic name, versatile midfielder is the closest to home, having been born in Westminster.
Valerio Di Cesare, 20: Italian defender built in the mould of his country's greats, such as Paolo Maldini. Is tipped to make inroads in the senior side in the near future.
Carlton Cole, 20: Currently out on loan at Charlton. Striker is expected to return to the Bridge in the summer to launch his full Chelsea career - and maybe a senior England career too.Reuse content