Chelsea Youth enjoy more FA Cup success but first team remains distant dream
On May 5, 2014, as a huddle of journalists waited for some Chelsea comment on a thrilling 7-6 aggregate triumph over Fulham in the FA Youth Cup final, Michael Emenalo came ambling through the Stamford Bridge press room.
As he passed with a polite hello, one of the group asked whether any of Chelsea's talented teenagers would be seen in the first team anytime soon. His face still fixed into a proud smile, Emenalo turned and asked: "Are they ready to win?"
The question went unanswered, but no answer was needed. Chelsea's technical director exited to join the celebrations in the tunnel, leaving no one who had heard him under any illusions as to the scale of the task facing a prospect who hoped to make his big breakthrough at Stamford Bridge.
Emenalo's response neatly summed up the mindset that has underpinned 14 years of senior trophies under Roman Abramovich's ownership, while at the same time undermining the hierarchy's own stated desire for a first team flush with home-grown talent.
Four years on, the overwhelming evidence is that Chelsea's academy stars are more ready to win than most -- at least at youth level. At the Emirates on Monday they secured a fifth consecutive FA Youth Cup triumph with a 7-1 aggregate thrashing of Arsenal, equalling the record set by Manchester United's "Busby Babes" in the 1950s.
The intervening years have also yielded two UEFA Youth League victories and one under-18 Premier League, which will become two if this Chelsea group beat the current United crop in the national final on Saturday. It is a level of dominance as relentless as it is remarkable.
Yet the question of how many will make it across the road that separates the academy and first-team buildings at Cobham remains as tantalising as ever. Of the 48 players who have featured in Chelsea's five consecutive FA Youth Cup final wins, 13 have so far made a competitive appearance for the seniors.
Andreas Christensen is the headline name on the list; the Dane's emergence in the centre of Antonio Conte's defence this season after two spectacularly productive years with Borussia Monchengladbach has offered encouragement to the many who aspire to follow him.
Others are currently on loan at clubs where Chelsea hope they will be given the freedom and patience to make the first-team leap there is simply no time or space for them to make at Stamford Bridge. Head of youth development Neil Bath believes that 150 to 200 senior appearances are required before a gifted youngster is realistically ready to break into an elite club's starting XI.
Bath indicated last summer that Chelsea were prepared to loan out their best prospects at an earlier age, even if it affects the academy's chances of continuing the trophy rush. On Monday, however, U18 coach Jody Morris insisted that such decisions will be made on a case by case basis.
"You need to see how things develop, even in such a small space of time like from [now] to the end of preseason," he said. "There are players in that group who are certainly capable of playing men's football. There are also some [for whom] it's maybe a little early in their career."
Callum Hudson-Odoi, U17 World Cup winner with England and the star talent of this year's group, is already the subject of social media lobbying from some Chelsea supporters to play significant first-team minutes ahead of Pedro and Willian.
Morris warned the dazzling 17-year-old remains very much a rough diamond. "He's still got a lot to do," the coach added. "He'll get a lot of plaudits because he showed in glimpses that he's got real, real quality, but he also showed in other glimpses that he needs to mature, to follow instructions. No one would want to see him succeed more than me. I love what I see him do with a football at times, but you also want to shake him at times."
Some are clearly more ready. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who won the FA Youth Cup alongside Christensen in 2014, is impressing at Crystal Palace and may go to the World Cup with England this summer. Tammy Abraham's development at Swansea City is also a subject of optimism, even if the goals have dried up.
There has always been a keen desire, felt inside Cobham and out, to see the cream of the academy rise to first-team level. Now, however, there is also a need. Chelsea's net transfer spend of £119 million since June 2014 ranks sixth in the Premier League, below Everton and Crystal Palace; Manchester City and Manchester United have both invested well over £400m in the same period.
The evidence of recent windows suggests Roman Abramovich can no longer compete at the very top of a hyperinflated transfer market, particularly with an expensive new stadium to pay for. Yet his club will go into this summer with a greater need for an elite talent infusion than at any time since the summer of 2012, when Eden Hazard arrived from Lille.
If elite talent cannot be acquired, it must be produced, and the spectacular dominance of Chelsea's academy teams since 2010 suggests there is no shortage of it at Cobham. "I'm extremely privileged and proud to be a part of it," Morris admitted. "I know we get knocked a few times because there's a lot of success in the academy and not as many getting into the first team, but you never know when that could change."
The key change could be in Chelsea's standing. Falling short of Champions League qualification for the second time in three seasons would be a clear sign that the club's "win now" culture, almost entirely incompatible with incorporating academy talent, is failing. If impatience really is a luxury that Abramovich can no longer afford, turning to the club's young history-makers begins to look a sensible as well as an admirable alternative.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.