Would you like a fun fact that isn’t all that fun? No? Too bad: As it stands, John Terry, now a withered husk at 36 and likely on his way out of Stamford Bridge at the end of the season (and maybe the end of January), is the only remaining Chelsea youth academy product to have carved out a place in the current first team.
The inefficacy of Chelsea’s farm-to-table track isn’t a tragedy or even a salient issue — in the same way that leaving the water running while brushing your teeth or the lights on when you leave the house isn’t really that bad. But the unfortunate reality is that [extremely that one friend who makes their own toothpaste voice] it is a drought. An energy crisis too. And with the Chinese Super League’s collective decision to spend its way to global relevance and Manchester City and PSG both swinging around oil money, homegrown products are going to become increasingly necessary. Eventually.
Plus, one of world football’s most romantic selling points is seeing young players come into their own. I mean, have you seen the Class of ’92 documentary?
It’s about the group of Manchester United players that won the FA Youth Cup in 1992, and eventually the Premier League, Champions League, and FA Cup treble in 1999. In the film, the band gets back together for a playfully halfhearted training pitch scrimmage. Footage of older and mostly-in-dad-shape legends like David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and Phil and Gary Neville giggling as the ball rolls under their feet is cut with interview segments in which the players beam about the good old days. Beckham, sickeningly, is way more handsome than everyone else. Which is true not only in the context of Class of ’92, but, like, in general. Watching the film while clutching a throw pillow and surrounded by used tissues, you might think, “Doesn’t every football fan want some version of this?”
Part of being a successful global brand is endearing yourself to the globe and propagating that squishy, gooey romanticism. That sense that you, as a fan, are being invited into a community — that you’re watching a group of players learn and grow from something promising, to something occasionally brilliant, to something threatening, and, hopefully, to something unstoppable.
Store-bought players just don’t inspire the same kind of excitement. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the undisputed king of the world, but if Marcus Rashford scurries into the box to steal a deflected goal in stoppage time, odds are higher that Manchester United fans (like me) will go running into the nearest intersection to milly rock in nothing but their underwear.
Under Sir Alex Ferguson, that Class of ’92 team, regardless of how much time was left or how many goals they’d let in, were within striking distance of three points. The 2008–12 iterations of Barcelona under Pep Guardiola, the core of which was made up of La Masia graduates, were essentially fishing with atom bombs. They won two Champions League titles and went three-of-four for La Liga titles in that time.
While still an untenable natural law, there’s something more cynical and grounded and less Més Que Un Club–y about them now, and, not totally unrelated, they’re already out of this year’s title race. But for a while there — and still now, obviously, though in percussive bursts instead of, you know, constantly — they were peerless, and captured the imagination.
Chelsea, while perennially good and annoying (depending on who you cheer for), or perennially annoyingly good (with the exception of last season), have never quite done that.
Including the seven players farmed out at the start of the 2016–17 Premier League season, Chelsea — just Chelsea — have a whopping 33 loanees pocketed all over Europe. And two in South America. It’s a well-tread story: sizzling prospect signs Chelsea contract, Chelsea immediately sends said sizzling prospect out on loan for eternity, Chelsea purchases a Brazilian, everyone wholly forgets said sizzling prospect ever existed.
Plenty of words have been written about Cobham (Chelsea’s youth academy) being like quicksand for developing talent, and the path from the academy to the first team being booby-trapped with so many switchbacks and pitfalls that it’s more or less impassable. Bright-eyed, full of piss and vinegar, they sign five-year contracts, then spend two or so years wandering the lower leagues of England or playing in League Cup purgatory before being stashed or sold to a smaller club. This mostly has to do with Chelsea’s general win-now disposition and its owner Roman Abramovich’s burlap sack full of money to dip into anytime a question about the squad pops up. But maybe, just maybe, things are changing under new manager Antonio Conte.
An object lesson in all this would be the case of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, a tall, brawny holding central midfielder, though he can be a handy target striker in a pinch. Under José Mourinho last season, he was overlooked because he hadn’t yet achieved the status of first-team ready, which under the Special One apparently meant 10 prior years of experience and/or superpowers. Under interim boss Guus Hiddink, who stepped in after Mourinho’s December 2015 departure, Loftus-Cheek saw some regular minutes, but only in April, after Chelsea were a comfortable distance from challenging for anything meaningful. He scored his first league goal against eventually relegated Aston Villa.
Under Antonio Conte … he’s actually made just one appearance, as a sub, at the tail end of a 3–0 dissection of Leicester City in October. But when a host of clubs came calling for the recently suffering 20-year-old’s loan services in the January transfer window, Conte turned them all away, wanting Loftus-Cheek to stay and cast his bread upon the water.
While no sensible person would think the importance of youth development would supersede the importance of Getting Silverware, Conte seems capable of kicking over rocks to find the pieces he needs hiding in plain sight. He’s also flexible with his personnel. For instance, one of the most astute tactical decisions of the season was his sliding Victor Moses — who, up to this year had three years’ worth of fine but unconvincing loan spells under his belt — into a wing back role that suited his attacking and defensive capabilities, and raw athleticism, in early October. Chelsea have only just had a 13-win streak snapped (against Tottenham), and are well clear at the top of the table.
So is it any wonder Conte doesn’t feel pressed to sign anyone in the transfer window? Not because of the “nearly breaking a 15-year-old consecutive-wins record” thing or the “league leaders” thing, but because when John Terry looks too slow to play in a Premier League contest, you can just recall Nathan Aké. The 21-year-old Dutch defender has been with the Blues since he was 15, and had spent most of this season doing work for Bournemouth, after previous loan spells at Watford and Reading. Maybe Conte could splurge for Giorgio Chiellini if he asked nicely, but maybe he sees something in Aké. Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe certainly agrees: “It would be a huge blow to us as he’s done so well.”
There are others. Bertrand Traoré is lighting it up in the Eredivise …
And, should anything happen to Diego Costa — God forbid — Conte can always recall Tammy Abraham from Bristol City (for a price, of course), who is five goals off of the top scorer spot in the Championship at the moment. Also, he’s 19.
Chelsea will probably win the league — and it hurts me to say that, because I really do hate Chelsea — but if they start to integrate some of their homegrown talent, they might actually win over some new fans in the bargain.
But, I mean, hey: If you can get Radja Nainggolan, get Radja Nainggolan.