After a well-earned winter break for all involved in the Chelsea academy, The Blues return to action in 2008 with a home game against London rivals West Ham, who beat a young Chelsea team 4-1 in the reverse fixture earlier this season.

That day, the team included 15 year-old Sam Walker in goal for what was his first appearance. Since then, Walker has impressed for both Under 16 and Under 18 teams and was one of the key performers in an Under 16 squad which finished runners-up in the Disney Soccer Showcase in the United States. As a part of Chelsea’s link with Disney, the club will invite some of the finest young American talent to a tournament in England next summer.

Big Ivorian striker Frank Nouble was one of Chelsea’s standouts in America, showing why he’s become something of an u18 regular this season as well as making the bigger jump to the reserves. With his combination of searing pace and strong and developed physique, as well as a fantastic set of skills, he’s an exceptionally hard player to play against at this level. If he can continue his form heading into the second half of the season and make more regular reserve appearances, he can have ambitions of aiming for the first team squad in his first year of the youth scholarship contract he’s almost certain to get next June (he turned 16 after this year’s deadline).

Indeed, of the team that played away to West Ham back in September, 11 of the 14 players who featured have since played in at least one reserve fixture this season, a sign that Chelsea are continually giving their youngsters an internal opportunity to play against men as early in their careers as possible. If we look back one year to the FA Youth Cup tie against Liverpool, Scott Sinclair, Michael Woods and Sam Hutchinson have gone on to make senior appearances for Chelsea in the Premiership, whilst Lee Sawyer, Harry Worley, and Rhys Taylor have all been unused substitutes. And with the FA Cup tie against QPR looming large, Jack Cork and Ryan Bertrand from that day may be added to that list after this coming weekend.

If the current u18 team looks at that list, with their own FA Youth Cup 4th Round tie at home to Shrewsbury coming up on January 17th, they can have every dream of progressing to a similar level in the next twelve months – the club has shown that if the player is good enough, he’ll get his chance – and there’s definitely players with the ability to make that next step.

As the self-proclaimed ‘Academy of Football’ West Ham make every effort in developing their own talent, and their record through the years has been exceptional. Current Chelsea stars Frank Lampard and Joe Cole came through their system, as did former Blue Glen Johnson. They currently sit 4th in the Premier League Academy Group A, although as one of the teams who’ve played more games than anyone else, their position belies their indifferent record, with 8 wins countered by 6 defeats. They do have a habit of scoring, with a remarkable 7-3 win over Millwall and a 6-0 win at Cardiff in addition to the win over Chelsea. Freddie Sears has found the net regularly, whilst Jordan Spence captained England’s Under 17s in the World Youth Cup last autumn, and they even have their very own tall Czech goalkeeper in the form of Marek Stech.

After a few weeks off, Chelsea should be close to full strength (excluding long-term injuries) and everything points towards a cracker of a game to open 2008. This weekday fixture last season finished scoreless, but promises more this season. The match takes place at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground with an 11am kick-off. Entry is free and encouraged, and you can get back to Stamford Bridge in plenty of time for the afternoon kick-off. The nearest public transport is Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon Station, where you will then be able to ask a Chelsea security guard for directions from Platform 2. A full match report will follow over the weekend.

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