There is a palpable buzz around Chelsea’s academy at present. Parents, coaches and players share the sense of excitement, according to those who frequent the matches for the youth sides at the training ground in Cobham.
‘People suddenly feel that if their son is good enough, he’s going to get a chance in the first team,’ said one watcher. ‘Before, it was just about going out on loan.’
They’ve waited some time for these overnight sensations — about 15 years. Roman Abramovich insisted on building the nation’s best youth academy when he took over the club in 2003. It wasn’t really up and running until the new training ground, incorporating the academy facilities, was completed in 2007. Since then, the owner has watched his young proteges accumulate seven FA Youth Cups, including five in the last six years.
What he hadn’t seen, until the inclusion of Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the first team last season, was anyone graduate to become a senior, established professional.
Many were tipped to make the walk across the beautifully manicured footpaths from the academy to the first-team headquarters — a pathway of around 30 yards at Cobham but seemingly a million miles apart. Yet last weekend it was as though all those years of work had crystallised in one game, when Chelsea tore through Wolves.
There was Fikayo Tomori, a centre-half, opening the scoring with a stunning strike from outside the box. Mason Mount, who recently made his England debut, finished it all off with the fifth goal.
In between came the hat-trick from Tammy Abraham, meaning all of Chelsea’s Premier League goals have been scored by academy graduates this season. Abraham’s third was astonishing.
Like a reincarnation of Fernando Torres, he took the ball down, held off Conor Coady and then burst past — his pace and aggression seemingly unstoppable. Frank Lampard insists none of this, including the sublime skill which led to Abraham’s third, has particularly taken him aback.
‘I wasn’t surprised because I’ve seen Tammy do that in training. I do think he has got that,’ he said.
‘On different occasions he can pull the ball out of the sky, do a bit of skill. If you watch his game you’ll see that in him. He does have that ability. That bit of magic is something pretty special.’
And Lampard raised the bar for Abraham ahead of today’s game against Liverpool, evoking the example of Didier Drogba. Abraham has eight goals, scored against Norwich, Sheffield United and Wolves, but missed key chances against Manchester United and Liverpool in the UEFA Super Cup.
‘It’s normal that the top strikers are judged on goals and the next level of that is — do you score goals against the big teams,’ said Lampard. ‘I understand that because against someone like Virgil van Dijk, a defence like Liverpool, a team like Liverpool, maybe it’s harder to create chances.
‘So it’s what can you do individually to try and create them and how clinical can you be. For the top strikers like Didier, we all remember the amount of times he scored in finals and semi-finals and really important games and I think, quite rightly, players are judged on that.’
Lampard pushed praise, rightly, to the likes of Neil Bath, the academy director, who must have felt like he was toiling in vain for years. ‘The picture here is wrong if it’s as if I am the saviour of the academy,’ said Lampard. ‘That work has been done by Neil and his staff.’
Reece James, the 19-year-old right-back, currently injured, will be next up. Lampard namechecks Conor Gallagher, 19, a midfielder on loan at Charlton and EFL Player of the Month, and Billy Gilmour, 18, the Glaswegian with a delightful touch in midfield who came on against Norwich. Centre-half Marc Guehi, 19, was on the bench against Valencia.
Lampard has taken time to socialise with the academy staff and is regularly at games. Players are often brought across to train with the first team or to travel with the squad as a reward for good performances. Lampard’s staff includes Jody Morris, Chris Jones and Joe Edwards, all of whom worked at Chelsea’s academy in the past.
So when Lampard went to Derby as manager last season with Morris and Jones, they knew where to turn for loan signings. Mount was perhaps well signposted but Tomori was less of a name outside Cobham.
Morris and Jones knew him. ‘I was aware of him, just from a slight distance, being aware of the players in the academy and youth team at the time who were playing at a good level,’ said Lampard.
‘At Derby it happened nicely for me because we needed a centre-back. I made the call. We felt we were in a good place to know his attributes and know where we could hopefully improve.’
It also meant when David Luiz was insisting on a transfer deadline day move, Lampard was willing to take a calculated risk and let the Brazilian go.
‘I just trust in Tomori as a player. The way he trains every day is the kind of thing I want to see. I wanted him to stay as part of the squad.’
Lampard was also crucial in Callum Hudson-Odoi signing a five- year deal. A year ago, the 18-year-old was growing desperate about his Chelsea future — downgraded to the Under 23 team. He wanted to join Bayern Munich. The first thing Lampard did when he was appointed was speak to Hudson-Odoi and spell out his place at the club and in the first team.
So, for now, Chelsea, a club at the forefront of the early wave of expensive imports into the Premier League, is going back to its roots.
If they start a match this season, as seems likely, with Tomori, James, Loftus-Cheek, Mount, Hudson-Odoi and Abraham, more than half their team will be homegrown and the plaudits well deserved.