December and the New Year period are traditionally busy times in the English footballing calendar, but for the country’s youth and reserve sides it’s a much-discussed winter break. The action shuts down for the best part of a month, allowing the younger generations to spend time with their families over the festive period, especially those who hail from overseas. Whilst there’s nothing to report on, it offers the opportunity to sit back and review the first half of the campaign, whilst turning attentions towards what may be to come.
Like any season at any level, it’s been full of positives and negatives so far. A healthy intake of local youngsters complemented by the arrival of Philipp Prosenik meant that the youth team could look forward to a group of players who have played with eachother for some time, whilst the arrival of Steve Holland as Reserve Team Manager brought a pedigree of player development and production the club has lacked in this department for many years. Things didn’t start so well for the former Stoke manager though, with a heavy 4-0 reverse to Aston Villa opening the campaign. Only two more league reverses were to follow before Christmas however (at Arsenal and at home to Birmingham) with a great many outstanding performances, most notably a 5-2 win at Portsmouth and a 4-1 triumph against West Ham at home.
Of course, results aren’t the main priority at this level, with the progression of individuals to the first team the main aim, and Holland’s presence has helped accelerate the process more than any one of his predecessors. Much of this could be down to coincidence, with players reaching the age where they are expected to make the next step, and the work done previously by Paul Clement, Ruud Kaiser and Dermot Drummy with this group of players has been good, but Holland’s skills lie in motivation and tactical understanding, and it’s no surprise to see Jeffrey Bruma, Gael Kakuta and Fabio Borini making an impact on Carlo Ancelotti’s squad already this season. Sam Hutchinson is a full-time part of the first team squad and would have made more appearances were it not for yet more continued injury woes, whilst Nikki Ahmed and Daniel Philliskirk have trained with the Champions League squad. Josh McEachran has travelled with the first team squad and tens of others have trained sporadically with the big boys, and the first real, tangible signs of progression into the senior ranks in Frank Arnesen’s reign are being realised.
With players stepping up, and fourteen players out on loan (more on them in a bit), it has allowed some of the first-year scholars at the club to make the jump into reserve football earlier than usual. McEachran, Billy Clifford, Billy Knott, Milan Lalkovic and even schoolboy Daniel Mills Pappoe have been playing up a level and have impressed more often than not. Some of them have been playing youth team football for 6-12 months anyway, so it’s the right step to take for their development, even if it’s ahead of their contractual schedule. With more of the Reserve team – Michael Woods and Ben Gordon particularly – needing a loan move for the second half of the season, it opens the door for more players to get their chance under Holland. The likes of Marko Mitrovic, Gokhan Tore, Kaby, Tom Hayden and Kenny Strickland will look to make waves at the next level before stepping up full time next season, and now is the time to grab their chance.
Those having made the step to reserve team football early haven’t entirely skipped youth football and have been a big part of Chelsea’s impressive form for the most part of the season to date. A tight opening to the season saw 2-0 and 1-0 wins alongside 2-1 and 1-0 defeats, before they settled into impressive home form with a patchy away record. Dermot Drummy’s boys have dropped just three points at Cobham, winning five of their six outings and only being beaten by a thoroughly deserving Crystal Palace side. Away from their luxurious facilities, there has been just one win, way back in August at Bristol City, and it’s that record which is keeping the Blues from challenging Arsenal at the top of Group A.
Still, it’s not the results that truly count, and the steps the group are taking have been positive. In addition to the players mentioned already, Sam Walker has been one of the revelations of the season, with some truly outstanding goalkeeping displays. A broken foot sidelined him briefly but he is back and ready to take part in the team’s FA Youth Cup campaign, which started positively with a 2-1 win at Charlton in mid-December. Another away tie at Nottingham Forest awaits in Round Four, and there’s reason to hope that the team can go one better than they did two seasons ago, when they finished as runners-up.
Mitrovic leads the scoring charts with 7 from 14 academy starts, with Knott ably supporting with five goals all scored in successive outings. Many of those came from his developmental role at left-back, which he has mainly impressed in, alongside a consistent partnership of Mills and Strickland (the only Group A ever present to date). George Saville has also looked useful in a new defensive midfield role, as the coaching staff get their teeth into players at a crucial time in their young careers, and look at where an individual may settle on the pitch. Aziz Deen-Conteh, Billy Clifford, Kaby and others have benefitted from playing a range of roles, and others will get the same treatment where necessary.
As more players move into the Reserve ranks, the club will turn its attention to the next batch of youngsters ahead of time. Typically, the new year will see a cluster of schoolboys make their first steps into academy league football, fresh from signing a scholarship agreement to commence in the summer. Mills Pappoe is already ahead of his class and the likes of Todd Kane and Jamal Blackman have been unused substitutes this season. They will surely be brought into Drummy’s plans in the coming weeks, alongside a small number of others in what is set to be a smaller intake than last year’s highly-rated generation.
Furthermore, the coach spoke in this weekend’s Chelsea matchday programme of his intention to use Nathaniel Chalobah and John Swift well ahead of their time, for neither is of upcoming scholarship age. Chalobah, an England Under-17 international, has already made his Under-18 team debut and will certainly get more action, perhaps as early as next month. With James Ashton and Rohan Ince returning from troublesome and long-term injuries, they will perhaps shape the core of the team in the second part of the year, with Anton Rodgers, Deen-Conteh, and Bobby Devyne all looking to be used more than they have so far.
Coming full circle and back to the first team, Miroslav Stoch has been quite simply outstanding in his loan spell at FC Twente in Holland, scoring ten goals and earning international recognition for World Cup bound Slovakia. Ryan Bertrand has been steady at Reading, Franco Di Santo useful for Blackburn and Tom Taiwo has been one of Carlisle’s best players thus far. Jack Cork has quietly impressed at Coventry and Michael Mancienne has been up and down at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Things are tougher for Scott Sinclair (Wigan), Liam Bridcutt (Stockport), Slobodan Rajkovic (Twente) and Nana Ofori-Twumasi (Dagenham & Redbridge), be it because of a lack of playing time or team/injury/individual woes, but the chance is there for them to improve their own, and their team’s fortunes. Jacob Mellis (Southampton) and Patrick van Aanholt (Coventry) have today returned from their loans with different aims for the rest of the season, but most disappointing was Lee Sawyer’s departure first from Southend, and then Chelsea due to behavioural issues.
Some will continue for the rest of the year at their temporary homes, others will find new destinations and the group will be joined by more. Whatever happens, it’s an exciting time at the club, and you can follow it all, as usual, here on CFCnet.