It looked like the culture might finally be changing at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea lifted their second Champions League trophy in Porto with five academy graduates in the match-day squad.
Mason Mount, player of the season, had laid on a superb assist for the only goal of the game.
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Reece James had put in an imperious performance at right-back to shut down Raheem Sterling.
Andreas Christensen, sent on for the injured Thiago Silva during the first-half, had been faultless in the centre of the back three.
Two more Cobham alumni, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Billy Gilmour, were on the bench that night, whilst Tammy Abraham, joint top goalscorer despite limited minutes, did not make the squad.
Regardless of the extent to which the pathway to the first team had been greased by the club’s transfer ban in 2019, the triumph in Porto marked the proudest day in the academy’s history – the club’s own products had played pivotal roles in bringing the most prestigious prize in club football back to Stamford Bridge.
And yet, just a few months later, there is concern that the Blues may be undoing the efforts that took so long to come to fruition.
Yet the Blues already had two highly promising young central defenders on their books last season, in Fikayo Tomori and Marc Guehi – both of whom have since been let go.
Fikayo Tomori’s sudden disappearance from first-team action under Frank Lampard remains as one of the unsolved mysteries of his tenure and arguably the only red flag against his name when it came to his youth integration whilst in charge.
His eventual sale to Milan preceded Guehi’s move across London to Crystal Palace for a combined fee that is likely to come in lower than Kounde’s price tag.
Kounde, if signed, may well prove to be an excellent acquisition – but his potential arrival at the expense of the club’s own is not the sole example.
Clearly not Thomas Tuchel’s first-choice front-man to this point, Abraham continues to be linked with an exit, despite being the club’s top goalscorer across the last two seasons.
Erling Haaland’s name continues to swirl despite a deal looking increasingly unlikely, which could leave Chelsea with a bare-bones assembly of strikers should Abraham leave the club and a new striker fail to arrive by August 31.
In many ways, Chelsea are still reeling from previous mistakes: the failure to get rid of fringe players on high wages.
Young players are a far easier sell, especially with the now-esteemed reputation of Chelsea’s academy.
One only needs to look at some of the names that travelled to Bournemouth for their last pre-season fixture – Danny Drinkwater, Davide Zappacosta, Ross Barkley, Baba Rahman – to see how bloated the squad is by players who have played, at most, secondary roles in the last few years.
Tiemoue Bakayoko, Michy Batshuayi and Kenedy all remain on the books heading into this season, not to mention the world’s most expensive goalkeeper who is not even first choice between the sticks.
There is an argument to say that the pandemic market has sabotaged the ability to shift such assets, with clubs scaling back spending and forcing a greater move towards loan deals, but the counter is that such players were poor investments even at the time and the damage was done way before Covid struck.
Drinkwater’s £35 million arrival from Leicester was the high-water mark for the club’s erroneous spending on positions that could be so readily have been filled by players within the club.
The promotion of Mount, James, Abraham and co have allowed Chelsea to chase their top targets in order to fill out key positions – evidenced in the club’s spending spree last summer.
Not every youngster that comes through the ranks may be destined to start, and it is important to note that several key products such as Billy Gilmour and Connor Gallagher will be developing on loan next year, but Chelsea seem to be closing doors at a time when their openings seemed more productive than ever.
Ultimately, the only culture that truly matters at Stamford Bridge is winning – a target that has been met emphatically under Roman Abramovich’s tenure.
However, to win with your own academy products at the heart of your success is an added achievement that sweetens your triumphs even further and reap long-term benefits – it would be a shame to see the club peel back such progress having come so far.
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