▶ For Dutch club, nur­tur­ing youth is part of their DNA while for Premier League side, im­me­di­ate re­sults sti­fled pas­sage to the first team – un­til now, writes Ian Hawkey

The National - News - - SPORT FOOTBALL -

Some three-and-half years ago, in the bu­colic sur­rounds of their Cob­ham train­ing site, Chelsea’s Un­der 19 side took on Ajax for a place in the semi-fi­nals of the Uefa Youth League.

The con­test fin­ished in a nar­row 1-0 win for the hosts, who went on to lift the tro­phy for the sec­ond sea­son in suc­ces­sion, con­firm­ing the high rep­u­ta­tion of the Chelsea academy.

Ajax’s fame as a hot­house would barely be dented by that set­back. The Dutch club has been cul­ti­vat­ing world-class foot­ballers for the best part of half a cen­tury, its academy a tem­plate for oth­ers to mimic.

What few elite clubs have man­aged, though, is as smooth a bridge from ap­pren­tice­ship to first team.

It is part of the Ajax land­scape, and sign­posted by the short walk from the well-ap­pointed Toekomst cam­pus, where the up-and-com­ings prac­tice, to the Am­s­ter­dam ArenA, where Chelsea will play Ajax in the Cham­pi­ons League tonight.

To look back at that Cob­ham match of March 2016 is to be struck by the fast-tracked progress of some of Ajax’s ju­niors.

Not much more than a year af­ter play­ing that Uefa Youth League tie, Matthijs de Ligt, now of Ju­ven­tus, Justin Kluiv­ert, now of Roma, and mid­fielder Donny van Beek were tak­ing part in the 2017 Europa League fi­nal.

Mean­while, Tammy Abra­ham and Fikayo To­mori, cen­tre-for­ward and cen­tre-back re­spec­tively for the 2016 Chelsea U19 side, fol­lowed up their cel­e­bra­tions of the Uefa Youth League ti­tle by going out on loan, to sec­ond-tier Bris­tol City and Brighton and Hove Al­bion. They were the first chap­ters in what is the stan­dard loan-af­ter-loan sto­ry­line for the best grad­u­ates of the Chelsea nurs­ery.

Over the years, the Cob­ham con­veyor belt has pro­duced some ex­cep­tional ta­lent, but what comes back to Chelsea is far more of­ten a handy trans­fer fee than a grown-up foot­baller for whom Stam­ford Bridge can sing, loud and proud, “He’s one of our own”.

Cir­cum­stances changed abruptly this sum­mer when a Fifa sanc­tion, im­posed be­cause Chelsea were found to have breached reg­u­la­tions on the sign­ings of for­eign teenagers – the Cob­ham academy scouts widely – meant no new re­cruits could be reg­is­tered.

Op­por­tu­nity, then, for the home­growns, re­called from their var­i­ous loans, Abra­ham, 22, To­mori, 21, and Ma­son Mount, 20, above all.

That trio, who have all now been called up by the Eng­land na­tional squad, are prob­a­bly en­joy­ing their sud­den pro­mo­tions too vividly to look in envy at, say, Van de Beek.

But he has had quite a head­start on them.

While Abra­ham, To­mori and Mount play Match­day

3 of their de­but Cham­pi­ons League cam­paign, Van de Beek, 22, will be com­pet­ing in his 40th match in a major Euro­pean club com­pe­ti­tion.

He scored in Ajax’s cliffhang­ing Cham­pi­ons League semi-fi­nal at Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur in May.

For one dis­tin­guished for­mer coach of both Ajax and Chelsea, that tells its own story.

Henk ten Cate, the for­mer Al Jazira and Al Wahda man­ager who, in 2007, gave up the top job at Ajax to help guide Chelsea to the club’s first ever Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal, says: “In some ways, Ajax and Chelsea have the same ba­sic idea: they put a lot of ef­fort and money into their acad­e­mies.

“The big dif­fer­ence is how

Henk ten Cate gave up the top job at Ajax in 2007 to help guide Chelsea to the club’s first ever Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal

they build up those play­ers for the first-team.

“Chelsea have not, un­til now, given the play­ers time to build their con­fi­dence there; with Ajax, it’s part of the phi­los­o­phy and has been for gen­er­a­tions. If, at Ajax, you don’t have young play­ers com­ing through and play­ing in a cer­tain ‘Ajax way’ the crowd will not ac­cept it.

“At Chelsea, the pres­sure for re­sults at a club that has been at the top of English foot­ball for re­ally only the last 20 years, and is in a much tougher league than Hol­land’s, makes it harder to give young play­ers their chance.”

He con­trasts his own ex­pe­ri­ence: at Ajax, the academy would be a prin­ci­pal re­source, its grad­u­ates syn­chro­nised to the play­ing style of the first-team.

At Chelsea what hap­pened at the academy felt some­how re­moved, dis­en­gaged. For Ten Cate, it seems star­tling that tonight’s Chelsea line-up might in­clude as many home­grown play­ers as Ajax field.

He is in no doubt they are ex­pertly guided. “It’s good for this Chelsea to have a young man­ager, in Frank Lam­pard,” says Ten Cate, who was close to Lam­pard when he was a dy­namic Chelsea mid­fielder.

“He’s the right per­son, a guy who lives foot­ball. As a player he would want to dis­cuss games in de­tail.”

Lam­pard might choose to de­tail to his ty­ros how youth can thrive in the Cham­pi­ons League.

He can cite the com­pelling ex­am­ple of Ajax, who last sea­son knocked out Real Madrid and Ju­ven­tus on their way to los­ing to Spurs only in the last minute of their semi-fi­nal. There is no bet­ter in­spi­ra­tion for the kids from Cob­ham.


Ma­son Mount, sec­ond from right, and Chelsea train in Cob­ham for the Cham­pi­ons League match against Ajax tonight


Henk ten Cate coached both Ajax and Chelsea be­fore head­ing to the UAE as Al Jazira and Wahda man­ager

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