How Chelsea built the best youth teams since the Busby Babes
The Busby Babes and the Class of ’92 are heralded as the two great youth sides of post-war English football. Twice in the space of 40 years Manchester United were able to bring together a group of players within their academy structures that would have the potential to dominate both domestically and abroad for over a decade.
Between 1953-57, the likes of Sir Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards helped United win the FA Youth Cup on five successive occasions. Thirty-five years on from the fifth of those triumphs, players such as David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt emerged to help beat Crystal Palace in the final of the same competition before becoming mainstays of Sir Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering side.
The Red Devils have continued to be successful in the Youth Cup, winning it in 1995, 2003 and 2011, but over the past 10 years one club have stood above all others in making success within the competition a habit.
Since 2010, Chelsea have reached eight of the 10 FA Youth Cup finals, winning seven of them while matching the record of the Busby Babes in lifting the trophy on five successive occasions between 2014 and 2018. A ninth triumph in 11 years was not beyond the realms of possibility this season either, with the Blues having qualified for the semi-finals before Covid-19 brought a halt to football around the world.
The roll of honour of those who have tasted success in the competition for Chelsea during the past decade is enviable.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Reece James, Andreas Christensen, Fikayo Tomori, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Billy Gilmour are all now part of the first-team squad in west London.
Jeremie Boga, Nathan Ake, Ola Aina and Bertrand Traore have gone onto become regular starters for clubs in Europe’s top five leagues. Marcin Bulka and Jonathan Panzo were snapped up by Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco respectively and have been backed to enjoy successful careers at the top level.
Even those who are not household names, such as Tariq Lamptey at Brighton and Isaac Christie-Davies at Liverpool, are on the path towards potential Premier League opportunities at some stage.
Chelsea’s 3-2 win over Norwich City in August provided a neat bow on the 10-year project that has been undertaken at Chelsea. Goals from homegrown talents Mount and Abraham secured a Premier League victory for a Blues team managed by club legend Frank Lampard. The former midfielder has handed out eight first-team debuts to academy graduates this season in a change of policy that is helping highlight all the good work that has been undertaken at Cobham in recent times.
“We had a couple of pints with Neil Bath [to celebrate],” Lampard revealed following the game at Carrow Road as he hailed the club’s head of youth development. Bath works alongside Jim Fraser as the figureheads of the club’s academy, with Fraser taking the lead on talent identification and signing youngsters to the club. Below them, a swathe of coaches, analysts, sports scientists, psychologists, teachers and scouts work together to help ensure success.
“You go back through the decade and you see unrivalled and incredible success in the academy,” Adi Viveash, who coached the club’s Under-18s to two FA Youth Cup titles, told Goal. “Winning is incredible for a player’s development. Especially at Chelsea because if you get in the team, you have to win.”
Having won the Youth Cup in both 2010 and 2012 – the second of which came with Viveash as manager – Chelsea again reached the final in 2013, only to suffer a shock defeat to Norwich City.
“We went to Stamford Bridge and we won 4-2 on aggregate,” Norwich academy graduate and now-Cardiff City winger Josh Murphy told Goal. “That doesn’t often happen in the Youth Cup. You see Chelsea won five times in a row. That just shows how good it was. It put many of my team on the map.”
That loss to the Canaries lit a fire in Chelsea’s academy, and after winning the trophy back with victory over Fulham in 2014, it would not be wrestled from their grip again until Liverpool’s triumph in 2019.
After a 3-2 defeat at Craven Cottage in the first leg six years ago, the Blues found themselves 3-2 down at half-time back at Stamford Bridge and staring a second successive final defeat in the face.
But a goal from substitute Isak Ssewankambo in the 77th minute brought them back level on the night before two goals in the final nine minutes from Dominic Solanke secured a dramatic victory in front of over 13,000 fans.
“You had the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Andreas Christensen, Charly Musonda, Izzy Brown and Jeremie Boga in that team,” midfielder Ruben Sammut, who now plays for Sunderland, recalled when speaking to Goal. “It was probably the best academy team we have had on paper.
“It was amazing to be able to train and play with those players. I am proud to say I grew up with that calibre of player. That was great. These are experiences I will take where I go now. I won the Youth League and Youth Cup and I am very proud of it.”
From there Manchester City were beaten finalists on three successive occasions, with the likes of Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden, Kelechi Iheanacho and Brahim Diaz among those forced to go home with runners-up medals.
Abraham and Tomori played in both the 2015 and 2016 finals, with Mount also involved in the latter before going onto win it again a year later alongside the likes of Hudson-Odoi and James.
“My youth career just gave me confidence,” Abraham told Goal. “Knowing I could score goals – it comes naturally. I just put it into every game I play, take chances and score goals. It helped give me that confidence I show now.”
As well as success domestically, the Blues were also beginning to become a dominant force on the continent, winning the UEFA Youth League in both 2015 and 2016, with victories over Shakhtar Donetsk and Roma in the respective finals.
It was the Youth Cup, though, that remained the prize most in the squad wanted to win.
“The FA Youth Cup was always the big one for us and it is something you want to keep hold of,” striker Ike Ugbo, who won the competition in 2016 before scoring in both legs of the 2017 final, told Goal. “I think we always worked hard to achieve it. We were able to do that and keep the trophies.”
Goalkeeper Nathan Baxter, who played alongside Ugbo in the 2016 triumph, agreed, telling Goal: “The FA Youth Cup matters. It helped me to play senior football at the age that I did because I had played pressured games in the youth team. It meant when I was on loan at every other team I went to, I could handle it.”
Midfielder Mukhtar Ali, a winner in 2015 and 2016, also recalls the internal pressure that came with continued success, with each player keen not to ensure they were not part of the side that failed to defend the trophy.
“We had seen all the older groups going for it and winning it,” Ali told Goal. “It was a thing from being young where we had a lot of eyes on us as a group because we had achieved a lot of things before that. So it was a little bit of pressure but a nice pressure.
“We knew we could beat any team. The second game in that run [in 2016] was Manchester United and we beat them 5-1. We just thought from there that we can definitely win it.”
The crowning glory for the Chelsea academy came in 2018 when, under the tutelage of Jody Morris and Joe Edwards, the Blues’ U18s claimed a domestic quadruple by winning the Premier League southern section, the national Premier League title, the Premier League Cup and the FA Youth Cup.
The 7-1 aggregate win over Arsenal in the final of the latter saw Hudson-Odoi and James claim their second Youth Cup winners’ medals while Gilmour started both games in midfield.
“I won four trophies in one season. That was my best memory under Jody Morris,” Clinton Mola, who came on as a substitute in the second leg at the Emirates Stadium, told Goal. “The players that are playing with the Chelsea team that I played with like Hudson-Odoi, James and Gilmour 100 per cent deserve to be there.”
Many who have contributed to Chelsea’s success at youth level over the past decade have been met with a roadblock when it comes to making the leap into the senior ranks. Despite the conveyor belt of silverware, morale was low inside the club’s academy after a succession of Lampard’s predecessors struggled to find roles for the club’s talented young players within their squads.
The club’s apparent lack of faith in their youth set-up was illustrated most starkly during the summer of 2017. Nathaniel Chalobah, who played and scored in the 2012 Youth Cup triumph and had been tipped as a future England midfielder from an early age, was sold to Watford for just £5 million ($6.5m). In his place arrived Danny Drinkwater from Leicester City in a deal worth £35m ($45m).
Fortunately for those within the academy, attitudes have changed under Lampard, with Mount arguably the player to have made the biggest impact this season. The midfielder has gone from relative unknown to an England international in the space of two years working under the Blues boss at both Derby County and Chelsea.
The 21-year-old used to travel 50 miles from his home in Portsmouth to train with Chelsea’s youth sides despite having offers from more local teams, and opting for west London is a decision he does not regret, telling Goal: “It was a tough decision [to join Chelsea] because you have to travel a lot but the best decision because the competition with the boys is so much higher.
“I have to thank all the coaches in the academy from the beginning. Bob Osborne, Frank O’Brien, Micky Bill, Joe Edwards, Jody Morris, Adi Viveash. All the coaches in the academy and I think I missed a few, but they all give you different things, and you learn different things off them.”
The latest to make the grade, meanwhile, is Scottish midfielder Gilmour.
“It is exciting,” Gilmour told Goal. “The experience I am gaining is massive. When I came, it was Jody Morris in the Under-18s and Joe Edwards in the Under-23s, so when you go around there you can feel a bit more relaxed because you know Joe and Jody. Then when Lampard comes in, it is really good.”
Viveash – the man who started the club’s almost unprecedented run of Youth Cup victories – could not be happier, saying: “My argument has always been with the coaches that there have been a lot of players good enough for many years. I am over the moon that they have Frank Lampard as manager.”
While Lampard remains in charge of the first team, Chelsea’s academy is the place to be in English football. Their run of successive Youth Cup triumphs may be over, but Chelsea can now boast of having a set-up that possesses both a track record of sustained success at youth level and a clear pathway into the senior ranks. Few, if any, can offer the same package.