In the world of soccer, there is much to say and think about youth team integration. Most, if not all, soccer clubs in England have youth teams, where top youth prospects play. In an ideal and perfect world these teams fuel the senior or first teams for the ensuing decades.
It is not often though that clubs in the upper echelons of English soccer have consistent or widespread use of their youth team’s players. Sure, every couple of years comes a player who is raised through the youth teams and can force his way into the first team’s plans, but in a world where average players can cost tens of millions of dollars to sign (not even including the cost of salaries and bonuses), you would think that teams would look or draw more from their youth teams. Now when you consider the cases of mid-table or lower table English sides they do use their youth systems regularly; however, they don’t ever seriously challenge for the all-elusive top six spots in the Premier League, the top flight of soccer in England. Perhaps most notorious is the case of my favorite team, Chelsea Football Club.
Chelsea’s lack of use of their youth system befuddles the fan base and pundits alike. Over the last five years, the Chelsea academy team has enjoyed tremendous success. Since 2014, they have won the EUFA Youth League twice, the U18 Premier League three times and the U18 Premier League Cup, as well as five of the last six FA Youth Cups. This kind of success is remarkable, and Chelsea’s youth system is a winning machine. However, over that same time span, only one youth system graduate has really cemented his position as a regular member of the Chelsea first team.
Much of the criticism of youth players is their lack of experience, so top clubs have sent their top prospects out to grow and get game time at other teams and in different leagues. Chelsea is most notorious in European soccer for their “loan army.” Routinely, Chelsea sends about 30 players off on loan to other clubs throughout Europe. Even though every club does this, Chelsea is singled out because of the sheer number of loans.
Loaning youth players out is a great way to mold them into real professional soccer players — the best teacher is the game itself, but hasn’t been working. These players dominate Europe and England when they are part of the youth teams, but once they take a step into the full professional soccer world, they drop off or don’t realize their full potential, thus never making it into the first team back at Chelsea. It’s heartbreaking to have guys who have come to the club at a young age and grow up within the culture and family of Chelsea, only to find themselves sold or passed over for the hottest player on the market.
I don’t think this practice is a good for Chelsea or any other club. I understand the draw and demand for clubs to be competitive and challenge the best of the best from around Europe, but at what price? Uninspiring, lackluster displays from players only seeking a paycheck with little to no loyalty. Watching the greatest athletes and most talented individuals in the sport is a lot of fun, but soccer has always been more than entertainment in England. It is an identity, a family and a way of life for the fans and these youth players.
In Chelsea’s case, players like Kevin De Bruyne, Mohammed Salah and Romelu Lukaku have all been part of the youth system and passed on over after their loan spells, only for them to rise to the highest ranks of English and world soccer playing for other teams. These youth players need time and trust — it’s time for clubs to return to ways of the past regarding loyalty and attitude of what youth systems are meant to be. The lavish spending on players destroys a lot of the fun and excitement of having a player who has spent his life playing for a club and has a personal connection with the fans play a game. I love to win as much as any fan, but I want more than just wins — I want a personal relationship with my club.
Nance is business manager for Campus Publications