Chelsea's youth finally reaping rewards
Age can be a touchy topic at Stamford Bridge. Outsiders routinely attribute defeats to the seniority of the spine of the side and pose questions about how much longer they can sustain the standards they have set. And yet there are signs it may become a source of pride rather than an awkward subject. Saturday's 1-0 defeat to Manchester City featured the novel sight, for Chelsea anyway, of a £17 million Brazilian being replaced by a 17-year-old Englishman.
Josh McEachran, of whom much is expected, came on for Ramires and is at the vanguard of a new generation. Until his recent emergence, 19-year-old Gael Kakuta was its most famous representative, while defenders Jeffrey Bruma and Patrick van Aanholt (who scored against Newcastle), and striker Daniel Sturridge, who struck the previous week against MSK Zilina in the Champions League qualify as contemporaries (the latter is slightly older but has only been at the club for 14 months). Carlo Ancelotti, unlike his predecessors, is showing signs he will trust the younger players and Chelsea may not remain synonymous with expensive imports.
It is too soon to say if they will help in the club's long-term objective of breaking even. It does suggest a radical change in strategy. But what it obscures is the reality that McEachran and company are the second generation of Chelsea's youth policy.
The fortunes of their predecessors equated to a false start from director of football Frank Arnesen. They are scattered across Europe, up and down the divisions in England and camouflaged in Chelsea's reserve team. Mainly recruited in 2006 and 2007 as Jose Mourinho's influence on Roman Abramovich began to wane and Arnesen's increased, they are Stamford Bridge's equivalent of a missing persons' list, footballers who were lost in inaction in the capital.
Admittedly, one made it to Wembley last season - not with the double winners, but as a substitute in Carlisle's Johnstone's Paint Trophy final team. Tom Taiwo and Michael Woods commanded a combined £5 million fee when they were enticed from Leeds' academy. The former never appeared for Chelsea's first team before moving to Carlisle, while the latter debuted almost four years ago but has only made two appearances while disappearing into the second-string side.
They proved a monumental waste of money, but others have come at cost. Before being sold at a £1.5 million loss, Franco Di Santo was briefly and inappropriately given Chelsea's No. 9 shirt. Now a Wigan player, his career in England, which also encompasses a loan spell at Blackburn, has brought one goal in 44 games. It is the sort of return that makes Emile Heskey look like Ian Rush.
Among those imported at an embryonic stage of their development, Miroslav Stoch has achieved more, helping Slovakia qualify for the World Cup and FC Twente win the Dutch title before being transferred to Fenerbahce in the summer for a rare and welcome profit. Yet he appeared for Chelsea a handful of times.
Nemanja Matic is another given a temporary stint in Dutch football, partly, it appears, because the midfielder might not have made Chelsea's 25-man squad. Defender Slobodan Rajkovic is in a third loan spell in the Netherlands. The indications are that neither Serb will make the grade in London.
There are advertisements for a permanent departure. Among those recruited closer to home, Scott Sinclair was borrowed by six other clubs before Swansea signed him for £500,000. The winger has already delivered eight goals this season, suggesting a new-found stability agrees with him.
Michael Mancienne, meanwhile, has a bizarre form of continuity. Two successive seasons at QPR have been followed by three in the colours of Wolves. The consequence is that only six of his 112 career appearances have come for his parent club. And yet he has still figured more than another perpetual loanee, Jack Cork, whose unconventional career consists of eight stints at six clubs and 131 games without making a Chelsea bow. It looks unlikely, to say the least.
Perhaps Chelsea's wealth allows the others the opportunity to benefit from the services of players who are able, if not quite good enough, to feature at Stamford Bridge but it is debateable if footballers in an unending form of limbo benefit. Some, like Oxford's Harry Worley, have descended the Football League at unfortunate speed.
Others might deem themselves unlucky. The combination of Chelsea's chequebook, strong squad and a short-termist approach dictated by the quest for silverware and a high turnover of managers is scarcely an environment to experiment with the emerging.
But for the knee injury that forced him to retire at 21, it is possible that Sam Hutchinson would have become the first homegrown player since John Terry to establish himself in the first team. Instead, that tag may go to McEachran.
His progress appears a sign that a lamentable record is improving. It is about time. Because in their attempt to rival Manchester United and Arsenal in youth development, Chelsea initially emulated Liverpool, bringing in quantity when they really needed quality. It is not just because of the contingent of 30-somethings in their squad that they have haven't enjoyed the numbers game.