With the season coming to an end, we here at CFCnet would like to take you on the journey of the 2008/09 season at academy and Reserve level at Chelsea. Over the coming days there will be a series of pieces, and we’ll start here with Part One: The Season in Review.
If you look at league tables, the 2008/09 season hasn’t been great for Chelsea. Decidedly mid-table in both the Reserve and Youth leagues, the teams have struggled for consistency all campaign, with defensive frailties and goalscoring issues dogging them at both levels on occasion. However, as we know, and are often informed, performances are secondary to individual development at these levels, and on those fronts, the club continues to do a decent, if not excellent job.
Miroslav Stoch, Michael Woods, Jeffrey Bruma, Gael Kakuta, Rhys Taylor, Niclas Heimann and Jan Sebek have all been involved with the first-team squad this season at the time of writing, joining Michael Mancienne and Franco Di Santo as the senior youngsters in Guus Hiddink’s plans. We’re told time and again that Frank Arnesen has been doing a poor job of finding talent, but consider that all bar Mancienne and Taylor are his work, and you’re looking at a more positive side of things. But that’s for a different debate altogether.
The season got underway with a large intake of players and the Cobham Cup in August. A largely Under-16 team reached the Final but fell at the last to River Plate, but confident performances from schoolboys and a prolific start to his Chelsea career by Marko Mitrovic gave hope for another positive season, after 2007/08’s run to the FA Youth Cup Final. Unfortunately, such hope gave way to problems very early on, as a late rally to earn a first-day draw with Crewe was followed by defeats to Newcastle and Aston Villa.
The Reserves started better though, impressing in friendlies against Manchester United before flying out of the league traps with wins over Arsenal and West Ham, with Michael Woods popping up with super-sub goals in each outing. Further friendlies against Liverpool and AC Milan at Cobham ended in two 4-0 wins, with Stoch in absolutely scintillating form, and coach Brendan Rodgers’ reputation ever growing, something we’ll get onto in a bit.
The Academy got themselves going with a 4-3 win over Reading, a game and scoreline which would become indicative of their performances over the coming months. Confident to score by the hatful at one end, defensive issues meant they were never quite secure in any game, and they would duly end the season with the worst defensive record in Group A. The 7-2 win over Ipswich in late September was arguably the performance of the year, with a Fabio Borini hat-trick (during a particularly purple patch for the Italian) outshone by Conor Clifford’s spectacular volley, a true goal of the season contender.
Things were about to undergo a drastic change in early November, however. When Watford sacked manager Adrian Boothroyd, they turned their attentions to Rodgers, one of football’s brightest young managerial talents. Having already rebuffed approaches from Leicester the previous season, Chelsea stepped aside and allowed the Ulsterman to progress his career, taking up the post at Vicarage Road. With him went Reserve fitness coach Karl Halabi, and goalkeeper Stuart Searle, who also coached occasionally.
It left holes to fill at Chelsea, and after an interim period of Paul Clement stepping up to Reserve Manager and Dermott Drummy covering the Under-18s, both appointments were made permanent, in much the same way as the summer of 2007 when Ruud Kaiser departed. Drummy started well with the academy, winning more high scoring fixtures (4-2, 4-2 and 4-3 inside a month) before a highly impressive FA Youth Cup victory at Old Trafford. Despite going behind to Man Utd early on, goals from Gael Kakuta, Frank Nouble and Fabio Borini gave them a 3-2 win and dreams of going one stage further.
Alas they weren’t to, as despite hammering Walsall 5-1 in the following round, their tournament came to a 1-0 end at Anfield in a much below-par performance. The Liverpool defeat came after a tumultuous turn of the year for the first team, where injuries and poor performances didn’t stop Luiz Felipe Scolari from handing a senior debut to Stoch, who made a few more substitute outings, and was integral in turning around a 0-1 deficit to Stoke with two stoppage time goals from Belletti and Lampard.
The same period saw the January transfer window hit the Reserve squad, and the weather affect the calendar. Just one fixture in the first six week s of 2009 meant players occasionally had to drop down to the Under-18s, where Drummy had heavily begun to use players from the Under-16s who would be upcoming scholars. Josh McEachran led the way with some fabulous performances after captaining England’s Under-16s during the Victory Shield, but form remained decidedly hit-and-miss.
When the Reserves finally got back onto the field they did so in some style. A draw with Fulham was followed by a 6-0 walloping of Portsmouth, where Ricardo Quaresma played well, but not without some fine support from youngsters Mellis and Di Santo. It was to begin a stunning run of form for Mellis which would end up with him taking his place in a Premier League match day squad for the first time against Everton in April.
Form continued to spiral for the academy, losing 3-0 at Fulham and Southampton and 5-0 at home to Tottenham as well as dropping a late 4-3 defeat to Arsenal inside a month. The only positives to take from this run of games was the presence of even more youngsters who you’ll be hearing a lot more of in the next twelve months, but we’ll get to those in due course as well.
After the Reserves won 6-0, they failed to win in six games, losing tight clashes at Aston Villa and Stoke before being well beaten by Tottenham’s far more senior charges. A dull goalless draw with Arsenal was then followed by a last-gasp defeat at Fulham in undeserving circumstances, before finishing the campaign well with a draw against West Brom and a 3-0 return thrashing of Tottenham. It was a testing time for the players and especially coach Paul Clement, who was working almost full-time with the first team after the sacking of Scolari and his staff.
Clement’s working with Guus Hiddink meant Drummy often took charge of the Reserves, leaving the occasional Under-18 game in the hands of Academy Manager Neil Bath or goalkeeping coach Mark Beeney. Such upheaval was always unlikely to help the players, but it will be a useful season for them to learn from and use to aid their own personal development. The Under-18s finished their year with good home wins against Charlton and MK Dons but ultimately on the losing trail as they started, defeated by Leicester and Watford to finish a disappointing 8th in their Group.
A season of learning then. Without much success on the pitch for the teams as a collective, the focus was very much on pushing players through, and to their credit the Reserves often looked younger as the season went on, with Borini, Philliskirk, Ahmed, Clifford, Nouble and others making an impact at the next level. These are the positives the club must take, and these are the players who must continue to take their opportunities in pursuit of bigger and better things.
In Part Two: Player-by-Player Snapshot Reviews.