Chelsea’s dire path for Academy grads: When will there be another John Terry?

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 26: Chelsea celebrate victory in the FA Youth Cup Final, second leg between Chelsea and Mancherster City at Stamford Bridge on April 26, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 26: Chelsea celebrate victory in the FA Youth Cup Final, second leg between Chelsea and Mancherster City at Stamford Bridge on April 26, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images) /

Chelsea’s greatest youth product, John Terry, will leave the club at the end of the season. No young Blue has any realistic chance of following in Terry’s career path.

In July 2014, then-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said if “[Lewis] Baker, [Isaiah] Brown, and [Dominic] Solanke are not national team players in a few years, I should blame myself.”

It has now been a few years, and Mourinho’s trio has mustered – in total – one substitute appearance for Chelsea. Izzy Brown made an 11-minute cameo appearance against West Bromwich Albion in the second-to-last match of the 2014/15 season.

This story is all too familiar to Chelsea fans. Despite four straight FA Youth Cup titles, Academy graduates combined for only 11 starts since Mourinho’s infamous comment. During that 2014/15 season, Academy products made eight appearances, totaling a meager 174 minutes. The greatest flourish of youngsters happened under the helm of Guus Hiddink, who was not even a permanent manager.

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Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Nathaniel Chalobah and others have racked up appearances and goals for the England U-23 team. But at Chelsea, they were rotting on the bench season after season.

While Chelsea struggled to promote their youngsters, other Premier League clubs have found success. Liverpool developed Raheem Sterling into a £53 million player. Arsenal has made Hector Bellerin one of the leading right-backs in the league in three years, while also handing out starts to young Alex Iwobi. Manchester United are building Marcus Rashford into an exhilarating striker by giving him increasing game time. And Chelsea’s most recent opponents – Tottenham, Southampton and Everton – have a plethora of academy grads in their first team.

With the arrival of Antonio Conte, Chelsea fans were quietly optimistic about the future. His work with Paul Pogba at Juventus shone as the prime example of what he could do. Blues fans were confident that the Italian manager would be able to allow the youth to step up and take center stage. However, that optimism quickly faltered.

As Chelsea kept adding to their 13-game winning streak, each member of the lineup became increasingly difficult to drop. There was no compelling reason to fix what was not only not broken, but operating at an incredible level. Even the players who were “replaceable” like Gary Cahill became a cornerstone for success. With such commanding performances, the Italian’s hands were tied. The prudent thing to do was send out the same lineup over and over again.

As a result, no Academy products have started a Premier League game this season. Even £32 million man Michy Batshuayi has not managed a start, despite Diego Costa’s struggles. Either Conte simply lacks trust in the Belgian or has total faith in the Spaniard. Conte is the anti-Claudio Ranieri when it comes to tinkering with his starting XI.

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The lack of other competitions in Chelsea’s schedule plays a role in the under-rotation. Early on, Chelsea only had the EFL Cup alongside the Premier League. The Blues exited the EFL Cup early, and then awaited the FA Cup. Even Ranieri, whose success with Leicester City drew on a very stable lineup, returned to his tinkering ways with the Champions League on the schedule.

The recent transfer rumors do not provide any encouragement that Antonio Conte is ready to give Chelsea’s youth their chance. Conte has consistently said that he is looking for a central midfielder, a center back, and a striker. Chelsea have a plethora of young options who have not yet had a chance to prove themselves at these positions.

The rumored transfer for Tiemoue Bakayoko will knock Nathaniel Chalobah and Ruben Loftus-Cheek down another peg in the pecking order. Kalidou Koulibaly or Kosta Manolas will undoubtedly start over Nathan Ake and Andreas Christensen. Andrea Bellotti and Alvaro Morata will come before Michy Batshuayi and Dominic Solanke.

Perhaps the most worrying part is simply the lack of playing time the youngsters receive. Ola Aina, Nathaniel Chalobah, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and Nathan Ake have made 17 substitute appearances this season. Their total playing time is 121 minutes, averaging out to just over seven minutes per appearances.

Without consistent playing time, they contribute little to the first team other than filling up the bench. Conte even seems to prefer giving the time-wasting appearances to more experienced players. Just in Chelsea’s recent clash against Everton, Willian and Cesc Fabregas came out with a few minutes left and the result already decided. Meanwhile, Nathaniel Chalobah continued to warm the bench.

The youth’s only path to the pitch seems to be a rather grim one: injuries. Ake received his first start as a Blue against Tottenham in the FA Cup because Gary Cahill was ill. Despite playing admirably, Cahill quickly displaced him the very next game.

When David Luiz was forced off against Everton, Ake was sent out to clean up for the rest of the game. If injury is the only thing that will force Conte to give minutes to the youth – even to an already established Premier League-standard player like Nathan Ake – the fans can not be too optimistic about the future of Chelsea youngsters.

This underlies why Dominic Solanke is a contract rebel. It is also a reason why Andreas Christensen is looking to force a move if he will not start next season. These players have witnessed the pattern of prospects being buried deep in Vitesse or other places, loaned out year after year, never getting a chance to flourish at Stamford Bridge.

No one should be surprised at this point. It is a well-known fact that the last Chelsea academy graduate that regularly roamed the field was John Terry.

Next: Tactics and transfers: An open letter to Cesc Fabregas and Gary Cahill

Terry will be leaving the club after the season. On the heels of the departure of the greatest academy graduate of Chelsea history, Conte and the club must find a way to develop a track for the bright wonder kids to have a chance at becoming the next John Terry.