In day four of our look at the best of the youth and reserve season so far we go to a player who nobody would have picked back in pre-season, largely because he wasn’t a Chelsea player. Former Manchester United scholar Kenny Strickland signed on what was initially a short-term deal and has excelled, proving a gem of a find for the club.
Of course, it should be said that it’s a gem which is unlikely to be worth very much to the club in the long term but for now, credit must be given where it is due and Kenny has been as good as anyone in blue this season. After two years at the most productive academy in England, he was released without a professional deal and sought employment elsewhere. Trials at Championship clubs Preston and Leicester came to nothing and as the season drew closer he was no nearer a team. Enter Chelsea.
At the start of August it was confirmed that Rohan Ince would miss a large portion of the season with a serious knee injury. It left the Under-18s with a hole to fill in defence, with just Danny Mills as a natural centre-back in the squad. Other players – Tom Hayden, Aziz Deen-Conteh, even Ben Sampayo at a push – could have filled in but it would not have helped their development. The academy staff decided to take a look at Strickland, and he hasn’t looked back.
Slotting into the heart of defence from day one, his absence in the second half of a friendly at Newcastle was telling, as the Blues conceded five goals in twenty minutes after his withdrawal. The improved defensive record – especially on home soil at Cobham – has been in large part due to Kenny’s no-frills, patient game and developing partnership with Mills. The duo have already made the step up to Reserve football in a successful win over Wolves. That night they faced international strikers in Chris Iwelumo and Sam Vokes, and looked every inch as good. Strickland’s mentality and smarts combine well with Mills’ raw athleticism, and it promises to get better.
He’s not a flashy player, and he won’t win any awards, but he is completely dependable and has intangibles, things you can’t teach. His experience and teaching at United is evident – he’s a capable player, and knows where to find danger and how to sniff it out. He leads by example and leads the team with a steady hand – something you want and might expect from the oldest player in the team, but would never take for granted.
He’s earned a contract until the end of the season, when the club will have to make the decision of whether to offer him a professional deal. It’s unlikely he’ll ever be a first team player – he doesn’t have ideal height, strength, or the all-round ability someone like Jeffrey Bruma or Sam Hutchinson has – but he can easily find a career in the second tier, at clubs like those who refused to take him on after summer trials. A pro deal at Chelsea would set him well on his way to that with a loan spell presumably following, and whilst it might not make ‘business’ sense to offer a contract to a player who the club will never keep long term, maybe Kenny just deserves it. It’s one of the feel-good stories of the season so far, and he deserves every credit.