This is the first in a three-part series on Chelsea’s Youth Revolution.
Part I takes a look at the state of youth academy products in the first team at the end of the John Terry era.
The departure of a Legend
It’s May 21st, 2017, and 42,000 people have packed Stamford Bridge to watch champions-elect Chelsea take on Sunderland on the final day of the Premier League Season. With the score level in the 26th minute, the entire stadium has risen to its feet to send Chelsea captain John Terry off with a standing ovation as he leaves the pitch in a Chelsea kit for the last time, shepherded over the touchline by a guard of honor from his teammates. Terry’s final appearance that day marked the end of a glittering career at the club spanning 717 matches (third-most in Chelsea history), 17 major trophies (the most as captain), and the honor of being Chelsea’s all-time top-scoring defender.
Watch John Terry’s last match in Chelsea colors
One of the finest center-backs to ever grace the Premier League, Terry captained Chelsea through the most successful period the club has ever known, cementing his place as one of the greatest players in history. His final act on the pitch involved handing over the captain’s armband to his successor, Gary Cahill. Yet, it was far less clear who would take up the mantle of being Chelsea’s next homegrown superstar.
Champions Again – But Where Are The Kids?
Chelsea would go on to defeat Sunderland 5-1, capping off the club’s sixth (and most recent) league title. The Blues were back on top of English football, with an exciting new manager at the helm and a team that had cruised its way to a 30-win, 93-point title victory. Yet, the end of John Terry’s time at the club brought the lack of youth products in the first-team into full focus. Of the squad selected to face Sunderland in Terry’s final game, only unused substitute Nathaniel Chalobah had graduated from the Chelsea youth academy. Having failed to make it onto the pitch on the final day, Chalobah finished the season with just 10 league appearances for the club that season. In fact, during Terry’s final year at Stamford Bridge, only Ruben Loftus-Cheek (5), Ola Aina (3), and Nathan Ake (2) had made at least one league appearance for the club.
Terry Broke Through But No One Followed
The 2016/17 season was not a blip in the fortunes of youth products at Chelsea. Of the countless graduates from the Chelsea youth academy since Terry permanently broke into the first-team in 2000, only fellow center-back Robert Huth had made more than 50 appearances for the club during John Terry’s two-decade spell at Chelsea (Huth departed Chelsea after the 2006 season). Towards the end of Terry’s tenure at the club, youth players’ inability to break into the Chelsea first-team started to become a sore spot among many supporters. This frustration would lead many fans to pin the blame on everyone from the various managers to the youth players themselves, and a growing urgency had begun to percolate over the fact that something needed to change in the way Chelsea Football Club integrated youth products into its first team.
The only problem was things were going well in the grand scheme of things. Sure, Chelsea might have struggled through a disastrous season just one year before finishing in 10th place and resulting in manager Jose Mourinho’s ousting for the second time. But otherwise, the club was performing about as well as most at the club could have hoped. Although success in the Champions League had been elusive since 2012, Chelsea were champions of England for the second time in three years at the end of 2017 and looked set for years of domination. The enthusiasm would not last for long.
Manager Antonio Conte would leave the following season after a fifth-place finish and a squabble with the Chelsea board that would make even Mourinho proud. Although his replacement, Maurizio Sarri, would bring Chelsea back into the Champions League with a third-place finish and a Europa League victory in 2018/19, he would leave the club after only one season. To make matters worse, Eden Hazard, arguably the best player in the Premier League, would call an end to his time in London and leave for greener pastures in Madrid. Only two years after Terry left the club a champion, Chelsea was neither close to being at the top of English football again nor very far along in turning out the next John Terry.