To finish off the review of the youth and reserve season, we’ve saved the best for last. This year’s Under-18 team became the first for 49 years to bring the FA Youth Cup back to Stamford Bridge, whilst their third place finish in Academy Group A was the result of an all-round improvement on last season, a rather up and down affair.
Dermot Drummy began the season with a large intake of players, but for a change only one player arrived from overseas. Philipp Prosenik complemented a healthy number of locally-sourced youngsters, a generation which had largely grown up together at Chelsea and had been touted for long-term success for a good while. Many of them had already featured in the youth team as schoolboys in 2008/09, including Josh McEachran, who had almost outgrown the league as a 15 year-old and would go into his first scholarship season eyeing a promotion to the reserve team.
Pre-season saw the club’s newly-adopted 4-4-2 diamond formation adopted, which was a change for almost every player, having been used to the 4-5-1 ingrained throughout the youth ranks as the ideal developmental shape and tactic. Colchester provided a simple ease back into action in mid July before the annual trip to Austria where SC Magna were sent packing. A trip to Rushden & Diamonds ended in a closely-fought 2-1 victory before goals exploded in the form of a 5-4 win over Bristol City and a 5-3 defeat at Newcastle.
The season started as it would continue, with fine home form underpinned by struggles away from home. The Blues dropped just seven points at Cobham, winning ten of their thirteen matches and proving hard to beat. Unfortunately, on their travels they could only find three wins (with one of those actually played at Cobham), losing seven of their total eight defeats on the way.
Naturally, the opening day trip to Blackburn ended in an 87th minute defeat, but points were put on the board when goals from Adam Phillip and Marko Mitrovic scored one apiece to defeat Nottingham Forest. Both had suffered injury-hit 2008/09 seasons, but their 09/10 campaigns would turn out markedly different.
A larger-than-usual interest was taken in the 1-0 win at Bristol City in early September as it was played mere days after the club had been banned from transfer activity during the Gael Kakuta affair. A goal from new signing Prosenik did little to silence the criticism, although everything would eventually come out in the wash. Another road trip a week later saw Mitrovic score a contender for goal of the season, but in a 2-1 defeat.
As with the reserve teams, occasional friendlies were played to keep the players fresh during lulls in the schedule, but unfortunately both Reading and the United States Under-17 team came away from Chelsea’s training ground with wins. At least when it came to league action the points were being collected, with Watford, Fulham and Charlton all going away empty handed in October. In a month full of goals, the youngsters fell 4-3 at Southampton late on, and were held 2-2 at Ipswich.
Indeed, confidence in front of goal was rarely a problem and when Russian friends from FC Tolyatti came for a kickaround in November, they were thumped 5-0 with Gokhan Tore scoring the pick of the bunch with a lovely free-kick. However, the remaining six weeks of 2009 were to become forgettable, as consecutive defeats to West Ham, Crystal Palace and Arsenal proved a huge set-back.
Sam Walker had broken his foot and backup Aldi Haxhia was unable to fill the breach in suitable fashion, seeing the game at Arsenal fall through his grasp (almost literally) with two goals in the last three minutes. Palace’s 3-0 win at Cobham was comprehensive and the only one to defeat the hosts all year in leafy Surrey, with midfielder James Comley starring on his way to a first-team squad place later in the season.
On a freezing December night at The Valley in South London though, the ball started rolling on the road to Youth Cup success. Goals from Jeffrey Bruma and that man Mitrovic put the Blues in the hat for the fourth round, and the team would go into their winter break dreaming of what may be. Upon their return they continued to make good on the dreams, spanking Nottingham Forest 4-0 at the City Ground in one of the purest attacking displays any Chelsea team put in this season.
With the cup run shaping up nicely, the league took a back seat and opportunities were given to schoolboys and first-years more than they had been in the 2009 portion of the season. Three straight draws against Crystal Palace, Arsenal and Charlton were largely positive results, but things continued to go well in knockout competition. Conor Clifford’s goal put them past Portsmouth and into the last eight, and as they headed to Vicarage Road to meet a team who had knocked Liverpool out, they were about to put in yet another wonderous display. Goals from Kaby, Mitrovic, Bruma and McEachran sealed a place in the Semi Finals for the second time in three years, and nobody else was playing better.
Four weeks between rounds allowed the academy staff to ensure they were able to field their strongest team and give them match practice to develop their tactic of choice further. Norwich, Fulham and Birmingham were defeated at Cobham (Fulham was an away fixture rescheduled due to flooding) and points were dropped against Southampton, but the calendar had kept Chelsea at home for a full month, which was a rather kind break.
Heading up to Blackburn for the Semi Final may therefore have been a slightly odder experience than usual but despite Kaby’s second red card of three in the season, an own goal from the son of former Blue Kevin Hitchcock (Tom) gave the boys the advantage they needed ahead of the second leg. A comprehensive 4-0 win at the Bridge put them into the Final, where they would face Aston Villa.
Ahead of the two-legged affair Portsmouth and Cardiff became the latest to succumb to a team who had only suffered one defeat in thirteen, which came sandwiched between those two matches to a Leicester team who went through the entire season unbeaten. Villa would prove a tough nut to crack in the showpiece occasion, with the first leg indicative of that in finishing 1-1. Jeffrey Bruma’s second half free kick arguably gave Chelsea the advantage returning home for the second leg, but despite a barrage of attacking football, the match wasn’t settled until desperately late in the day.
Captain Conor Clifford scored a scorching 25-yard blockbuster with just minutes remaining to send over 10,000 fans into raptures and seal the FA Youth Cup’s return to Stamford Bridge. Jubilant scenes followed with the staff and players entirely deserving of their success, leaving just Ipswich (win) and Tottenham (loss) to round out a breathless nine months.
In reviewing the team, we’ll start in goal once again. Sam Walker played the lion’s share of the fixtures and was outstanding throughout. He kept clean sheets in half of his appearances and was a key part of the defensive stability which was so key to Cup glory. His string of outstanding saves in league action would make quite the compilation. When he missed time with the broken foot, Aldi Haxhia got his chance but was a step down in ability and it showed in results and statistics. Niclas Heimann played twice and looked at ease, whilst Jan Sebek’s run-out at Charlton finished in a 2-2 draw.
Across the back four there were essentiall three different combinations of players. Billy Clifford, Daniel Mills Pappoe, Jeffrey Bruma and Aziz Deen-Conteh featured heavily in the first half of the season and throughout the cup run, and all played brilliantly along the way. Deen-Conteh is arguably the unsung hero of the season, featuring more than any other player and plying his trade excellently in multiple positions.
Bruma didn’t play much in league football, which gave Kenny Strickland the chance to do so in the first half of the year. He was excellent, as you may expect somebody with two years of experience in youth football to have, and he duly stepped up to the reserve team at the turn of the years. Ben Sampayo split his 25 appearances between right and left back and showed great development as the season went on, looking much the better player for his first year as a full-time scholar. He was given greater scope for playing time when Tom Hayden and Billy Knott left the club, and seized his chance with both hands.
Rohan Ince returned from a cruciate ligament injury and took a while to feel his way back into the fold, but came good in the second half of the home leg against Villa. Schoolboys Nathaniel Chalobah and Todd Kane were handed opportunities to impress and how both did, looking part of the team from the off and weighing in with goals as a bonus. Reserve teamers Nikki Ahamed and Ben Gordon played just to keep the rust away.
By opting for a diamond midfield – which was eschewed midway through the year in favour of the 4-5-1 for use in the FA Youth Cup – George Saville was able to excel. A left-back for the great majority of his junior career, he moved into defensive midfield upon becoming a scholar and despite his small and slim stature, he was a revelation. Composed in possession with the ability to control the play, he was occasionally overawed but grew into his role well, battled hard and, like Sampayo, looks much the better for his versatility.
He didn’t play in the cup run though, bowing to seniority in the form of Clifford and Kaby. The Irishman led by example and was superb, whilst the Portuguese re-invented himself from an attacking flair player to a midfield terrier with tenacity to spare. His all-energy style was a bonus, but came at a cost with three red cards. The third of the youth cup trio, Josh McEachran, was his understated self for most league appearances, playing his particularly attractive brand of football with little pomp and circumstance, but turned it on when it mattered most.
They were required to play more than their fair share of action though, as James Ashton was restricted to just one start and two sub appearances with a year of injuries, whilst Anton Rodgers also missed time injured or on international duty. He came into the fold regularly at the end of the year and will look to top his 14 outings next year. Daniel Philliskirk scored four goals in his five appearances and was too good for Under-18 football, whilst John Swift played twice and is one for the future.
Whether in a two-man partnership or up on his own, Marko Mitrovic made 2009/10 his season. After missing out on much of his first year in England through injuries he came back well rested and thrived, scoring 16 goals and leading the line selflessly. His goals came from all sources – tap-ins, long shots, penalties, headers – he has the lot and worked his socks off every time he took to the pitch. He started more games than anybody else, largely because Philipp Prosenik’s first year mirrored Marko’s, with three injuries impinging his progress. Bobby Devyne managed five goals but rarely convinced, occasionally used in a wide role.
He wasn’t likely to start very often though, with Gokhan Tore, Milan Lalkovic and Jacopo Sala running riot. The Turkish hotshot created ten goals himself and was a threat to all full-backs of a Saturday morning. Lalkovic’s harem-scarem style contrasted well with Sala’s composed, laid-back approach but both brought their own talents to the table and they combined for eight goals and six assists. Adam Phillip played twice with appearances bookending the season, and in scoring in both matches he showed his predatory instinct.
It was a wonderful year to follow the Under-18s, who played football which was easy on the eye, with the enthusiasm-naivety mix that you often find at this level. The group as a whole matured over the course of the campaign, with individuals taking their own games to new levels, many stepping up into the reserves. Filled with drama, great goals and controversy – yes, even at this level – roll on 2010/11!