By Rory Smith
Chelsea is hailing the emergence of three academy products this season, but how many others missed their moment?
There was a statistic flying around this week, one of those made-for-sharing bits of trivia, that every single one of Chelsea’s goals in the Premier League this season has been scored by an English player under the age of 21. Fikayo Tomori has one, Mason Mount three, and Tammy Abraham, the standout story of the nascent campaign, has an impressive seven.
I remember the first time I saw Abraham: a late substitute in a moderately pointless end-of-season game against Liverpool at Anfield. He was 18, then, and had scored some faintly impossible number of goals in Chelsea’s youth teams. There was, even at that stage, something of a buzz about him: the sort of academy player whose name you knew. (As a sophisticated judge of players and renowned spotter of talent, my verdict was that he was very tall).
There was also a sense that he would be something of a test case. Everything seemed to point to the fact that Abraham would make it. Chelsea had invested tens of millions of pounds in its academy, bringing some of the best and brightest youth players from around Europe to the stockbroker belt just outside London. Its youth teams were regularly the best in the country.
And yet none of those players had much threatened to claim a regular place in the first team. They had, instead, been sent out on an interminable round of loans, often including a spell at Vitesse Arnhem, Chelsea’s Dutch cousin club. Theirs was a peripatetic career: owned by one team, borrowed by others, never belonging anywhere. They had their own changing room at the training ground: not quite first-team players, no longer youth teamers. They were Chelsea’s in-betweeners.
Abraham, though, was the shot. He was the one who was supposed to buck the trend. He would make the leap and establish himself, and if he did not, if he could not, then it would prove once and for all that nobody would.
That was May 2016. Since then, Abraham has thrived on loan at Bristol City, survived a spell at Swansea, and then shone at Aston Villa. There were points, along that road, when it seemed he would never get his chance at Chelsea, the club he joined at age eight, times when it seemed he was part of the pattern, not the end of it.
And then this season happened. Chelsea had a new manager, Frank Lampard, who was eager to give youth its moment. More important, he had no choice: Chelsea’s transfer ban, meted out for breaking FIFA’s rules on signing young players, meant he could not turn to the market to reinforce his squad.
Abraham had his chance and, like Mount and Tomori, he has taken it. Chelsea plays Liverpool on Sunday, a step up in terms of opposition from the teams it has faced so far, but it is unlikely any of the young players (if Mount plays) will be cowed. They are bristling with confidence. Chelsea as a club is bubbling with life.
In the midst of all the celebration, though, there should be a note of regret. Chelsea has only broken a cycle of its own making because it was compelled to by circumstance. It is wonderful that Abraham, Mount and Tomori have made it, a genuine feel-good story.
But what of all those who went before them, those who were not given their chance, those who might have done just as well if only the club had discovered patience and faith a little earlier, and without legal compulsion? Might some of them not have had something to offer? It is too much of a coincidence, surely, that Chelsea should have happened upon three such promising young players now, just as it happened to need them?
More likely is that there is always talent in academies, talent that just needs to be given a chance to show that it can cope. Too often, young players only emerge in times of need, because of injury (Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold) or loss of form (Manchester United’s Scott McTominay). Chelsea has every right to revel in its new hero’s rise. But it should reflect, too, on how many more Abrahams it might have had, if only it had thought to look.
*Culled from The New York Times
By Rory Smith