Stakes too high to gamble on youth
When Oxford United centre-back Harry Worley takes to the field against West Ham in Tuesday's Carling Cup clash at Upton Park, you would forgive him for being enveloped by a feeling of 'what might have been'. Just over three years ago, he was standing on the touchline at Wembley - wearing the No.39 shirt that would later be sported by Nicolas Anelka - having been summoned by Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, who wanted to give his 18-year-old defender a run out in the Community Shield against Manchester United.
But the dream debut never arrived. Referee Mark Halsey blew the final whistle and the match went to penalties. To say Worley's career has been a rollercoaster since that day would be an understatement.
He left Chelsea in 2008 - just a few months after his involvement in the Community Shield - joining Leicester City, but first-team opportunities were hard to come by after the manager who signed him, Ian Holloway, was sacked. Loan spells at Luton and Crewe followed before Oxford United boss Chris Wilder signed him for the League Two club this summer. Despite a journey that has seen him descend three divisions in three years, Worley claims he is feeling happier now then he has done since his time at Chelsea.
"When I spoke to the gaffer here, he said he knew about my history - he knew I'd had a few loans but hadn't settled anywhere", Worley says. "He basically said I have gone off the radar and have struggled to get a foothold in the game, which is true. He wants me to feel settled again and I really think that can happen here. It's worked perfectly and it's a fresh start.
"What has happened, has happened. I don't think you have time in your life for regrets - there's no point thinking about what could have been. You just have to crack on, keep going and look to the future. I know a lot of boys who I played with at Chelsea who aren't even in the game anymore; what's happened to Sam Hutchinson this week is horrible to see, it is just gutting for a player who is 21 and has their career ahead of them to have to retire. I feel very grateful to have a three-year contract with a side on the up. I've got to rebuild my career again now but I'm looking forward to the challenge of playing here."
Hutchinson, who was forced to hang up his boots because of a persistent knee injury, was a rare example of a young English player given a first-team chance at Chelsea - with John Terry the sole academy graduate of the past 12 years to be plying his trade as an integral part of the club's first XI. Worley played with Hutchinson in the Blues' reserve team, along with the likes of Scott Sinclair and Michael Mancienne - all talented players who threatened to be 'the next big thing' at Stamford Bridge but whose stars appear to have prematurely faded.
The plethora of foreign imports in the Premier League has often been highlighted as the chief reason for a lack of opportunities for English youngsters, with even club's academies now not safe from the influx of players from abroad. The likes of Arsenal and Manchester United have turned this into an art form, with Cesc Fabregas, Gael Clichy, Rafael and Federico Macheda all examples of players who have, to some extent, made the step up. Chelsea's Gael Kakuta could soon add his name to this list, but Worley feels that blaming English youngsters' limited playing time on foreign players is off the mark.
"I don't think there was ever any resentment towards the foreign players, especially under Brendan Rogers [former Chelsea youth and reserve team boss] when it was always based on team spirit. Everyone got on really well and we always welcomed the foreign players - who were really nice boys. I am delighted to see the likes of Miroslav Stoch sign for Fenerbahce recently. He's a real talent and I feel blessed that I played with players like that. I thought from day one he would be a good player. He's played in the World Cup and he will be a great player in the future."
So what is the reason for players not breaking through at the big clubs? For Worley, the answer is quite simple: the stakes are too high. Despite scouring the world, through vast and expensive scouting networks, in order to bring the best youngsters to their academies, the bigger clubs in the English top flight seem to remain unwilling to trust these talented players with first-team opportunities. Somewhat paradoxically though, it is the clubs with more to lose - i.e. the potential financial abyss of relegation - that seem to show more willingness to "gamble" on players.
"The chances of playing are just so restricted with the bigger clubs", Worley explains. "I loved every minute of my time at Chelsea but I was desperate to go out and play somewhere regularly. There are other clubs in the Premier League, the likes of West Ham for example, where young players are given a chance. But Chelsea have got so much money they can basically buy who they want so it's difficult to break through; from my age group there's not many who have.
"I think the problem is that the stakes are just so high now. For top Premier League managers it's so vital to win games - the money at stake is just ridiculous. Twenty years ago there was pressure but it's at a different level now and it's so hard for players to break through."
There is certainly pressure, but Worley is not alone in readily admitting that he would have loved the opportunity to experience it. When young players are considered for first-team involvement, it is still suggested that a manager is "taking a risk" by playing them. But was playing Wayne Rooney regularly at 18-years-old ever called "risky"?
If more youngsters had their chance, there is a strong possibility that they could prove that the Everton academy graduate is not just a sensational anomaly. Put simply, these boys want the chance to show they can thrive under pressure. Representing the first team is, after all, what they have spent their entire football apprenticeships with a club waiting to do.
Having played for six different clubs in his career already, Worley could easily have become disillusioned with the game, and one would certainly understand if he were frustrated by his Chelsea experience. But he says he has nothing but fond memories of the Blues and believes he can make it back to the Premier League one day.
"As a 16-year-old boy, who was going to turn down signing for Chelsea? I've always said I loved every minute there. There were obviously ups and downs but you can't have a better start in football than what I had there, everything was ten out of ten. Obviously it is difficult to break through but the grounding I had helped me improve so much as a footballer so I have got no regrets there.
"I'm certainly not doing this interview to try and promote myself and say I want to leave Oxford to progress my career because I am loving it here, there's a great team spirit and I thoroughly appreciate the opportunity. But obviously I have ambition and I want to play in the Premier League one day. If you are a professional footballer that's what you aim for. You have to set your goals realistically and I believe that is a realistic goal."
At Upton Park, he will get a chance to prove himself against a club that have become renowned for giving English players - most recently the likes of Mark Noble, Freddie Sears and James Tomkins - a break. But there will be no feelings of envy or regret as he looks across to his opponents in claret and blue, just a sense of satisfaction that for the first time in three years he has finally found a club he can comfortably call home.