Conventional wisdom and basic logic can be dangerous things. They don’t always show the whole picture, ignoring subtleties which change the landscape and is often the difference between being right and wrong on something. But indulge me for a moment (with yes, another of these pieces) and take them as accurate and a strong base on which to start something.
Lee Sawyer has been on loan at Southend in League One this season. He played a dozen or so games, scoring three goals. He returned to Chelsea this week and was promoted to the senior squad to train ahead of today’s FA Cup tie with his former temporary team. He wasn’t alone, being joined by fellow returnee Michael Mancienne, Scott Sinclair, Franco Di Santo, and two who wouldn’t be involved in the game, third-choice goalkeeper Niclas Heimann and defender Jeffrey Bruma.
You might forgive Lee if he felt he was going to be involved today, and by involvement I mean getting on the pitch to play. On Friday Luis Felipe Scolari revealed that “[he] is training with me again and will stay with me, and sometimes play games in the reserve team”. Not just a temporary call-up, if you read those comments as many have, but one with long-term intentions to it. The same could apply to Mancienne, who returned from Wolves – where he starred enough to earn Fabio Capello’s attentions – instead of extending his loan and went straight into the matchday squad, still to make a senior Blues appearance.
This group of youngsters, the first fruits of Chelsea’s extravagantly expensive youth system, soaked in the pre-game atmosphere, warming up together, Sawyer and Mancienne perhaps dreaming of getting their first action on the Stamford Bridge turf, both having been unused subs in the past. Di Santo looked revitalised after injury, and Sinclair perhaps just glad to be involved again. They took their turns to run through their extended warm-up routines during the first and second halves along the touchline, occasionally being greeted by soft applause in the corner of the Matthew Harding stand.
But the clock went on and on, past 60 and 70 mins, closing on 80 mins. Their senior teammates were toiling against a Shrimpers team high on effort and work-rate, but low on ability and attacking instincts (save for the lively Junior Stanislas, himself a loanee from West Ham’s reserves). After 82 minutes, Di Santo got onto the pitch, and with three minutes left Sinclair joined him. They then witnessed the horror and sheer hilarity of Peter Clarke scoring an injury-time equaliser to send 6,000 Southend fans home happy with a replay to look forward to.
So an inquest of different sorts begins. Whilst the major media attention will again be on Scolari, my own agenda as one who unashamedly has a keen eye on the youth and reserve setup at the club is surrounding the disappointment that many Blues will once again be feeling regarding the club’s young players. It’s a very simple way to say this, but if Sawyer was good enough to be one of Southend’s better performers this season (take a read of the Shrimper Zone Forums for more individual views), why was he not deemed good enough to line up against them? Taking it further, why was Mancienne, a key player for a Championship-topping side and budding England squad member, left out in the cold for a returning Ricardo Carvalho? Di Santo and Sinclair, strong performers in the Reserves in 2008 and occasionally impressive in the first team, well they must be even more confused.
It seems that despite his protestations upon taking the job, Scolari isn’t comfortable using the club’s younger players. If you can’t blood your next generation against a team 55 places below you in the football league ladder and without a win in five games, when can you? If Sawyer’s not good enough to play against a League One opponent, why on earth was he loaned to one to expose him to football against teams of the same calibre? Sure, you’ll say, Southend were good enough to hold the established Chelsea household names to a draw at Stamford Bridge, but that argument doesn’t always cut it (especially considering the club’s home form this season). Younger players are often more energised, keen to impress, and play with an exhuberance and dynamism that often belies their age.
Jack Wilshere, Zavon Hines, Kyel Reid, Jay Simpson, Danny Welbeck, Ben Amos, Josh Walker, Rodrigo Possebon, Fran Merida, Jordan Henderson. The list could go on, young players who have featured in Cup competitions this season for Premiership clubs against opponents of Southend’s level or better, and produced the goods alongside the key names. There’s not a Chelsea name amongst them because they’ve not played. 4-0 up away to Portsmouth in the Carling Cup? On goes Paulo Ferreira. How must the unused Mancienne and Miroslav Stoch that night have been frustrated.
Scolari will no doubt cite the pressures of managing a top club when blooding the younger legs, that a resolute Southend may have had their way with Chelsea on this January afternoon. Jose Mourinho, with Roman Abramovich’s money at the peak of its spending, still managed to blood Sinclair, Ben Sahar, Michael Woods and Sam Hutchinson, as well as introduce Sawyer and Rhys Taylor to the world of the Premiership subs bench. Avram Grant, well he was onto a tough thing from the off and probably rarely knew if he was going to be in charge from one game to the next, so it’s understandable if he focused on the first team. But Scolari? When he says, in his first week in charge, “You have to be positive and not be nervous about making changes or bringing through young players. It is a balancing act and you exchange a certain amount of experience, which is invaluable, for the huge talent that’s emerging”, is it naive to expect better?
Oh, and I missed one name from the list of players blooded under Mourinho. Anthony Grant, now of Southend, who put in a Man of the Match performance today in shutting down Frank Lampard. If you don’t get your chance, you often have to drop down the levels to take the steps up another ladder to reach those heights in a different manner. Grant, like he did today, could make Chelsea regret their decisions, not only regarding him, but every other youngster on their books.