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How Chelsea's talent factory is creating the John Terrys of tomorrow

Eton Blue at the Chelsea Megastore

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Sitting behind his desk at Chelsea's training ground, in an office the size of a small changing room, Frank Arnesen delivers an unexpected response to a question about Roman Abramovich's interest in the club's academy. "He's very interested," Chelsea's sporting director says as he sips on his coffee. "In fact, he was here 10 minutes ago, sitting in your seat, and we talked about three young players. He's always been involved but now he's even more involved. He wants to know everything."

Although the Russian billionaire has departed without trace, his fingerprints are all over Chelsea's state-of-the-art training complex in Cobham. The Chelsea owner's multimillion-pound investment has provided the club with a facility designed to bring out the best in some of the biggest names in world football. For Abramovich, however, it was just as important to create an environment where the club could start to groom tomorrow's stars as part of his plans to make Chelsea self-sufficient.

This week the Guardian was given unprecedented access to go behind the scenes and see how the project is progressing. It provides a revealing insight into the planning and attention to detail that goes into the development of every youngster who enters the club's academy with aspirations of following in the footsteps of Josh McEachran, the 17-year-old midfielder who joined Chelsea at the age of eight and is now a member of the first-team squad.

Chelsea have become wearily accustomed to criticism of their youth programme and need no reminding that John Terry, who made his debut in 1998, is the last homegrown player to nail down a regular first-team place. When Arnesen was appointed as chief scout and director of youth and development in 2005 expectations were raised, big fees were spent on young players and people anticipated a quick fix. Within the club, however, there was an acceptance it was going to take time.

A significant breakthrough came last season, when Chelsea won the FA Youth Cup for the first time since 1961. And at the start of this campaign Carlo Ancelotti drafted four youth-team graduates – Gaël Kakuta, Patrick van Aanholt, Jeffrey Bruma and McEachran – into his first-team squad. "We've made a big step this year," Neil Bath, Chelsea's academy manager, says. "With Carlo's support and the board's support you feel there is light at the end of the tunnel."

Bath, who started as a part-time schoolboys' coach at the club in 1992 and is a lifelong Chelsea supporter, took charge of the academy in 2004. He comes across as one of those people whose commitment to his job knows no boundaries, and there is an obvious sense of pride when he conducts a guided tour of the academy at the start of the day and points to the trophy cabinet full of silverware in reception. "We didn't need one of those six years ago because we had nothing to put in there," he says.

From the youth-team dressing room that would not look out of place in a Premier League stadium to the grass, artificial and indoor pitches that are a hub of activity from 8.30am until 9pm, the facilities are hugely impressive. Abramovich's wealth has made everything possible but what the Russian cannot buy is the camaraderie that galvanises everyone in the academy and is epitomised by the sight of McEachran watching the under-16s train after he has finished with the first team.

The scholars, aged between 17 and 18, live in digs and report for breakfast in the canteen at 9am. Chelsea also have 36 secondary school children, aged between 14 and 16, who spend one or two days a week at the academy, as part of a day-release programme that allows youngsters with elite talent to combine educational work with extra football training. The younger age groups, starting at under-nines, train on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday morning.

Scholars receive regular feedback on their progress. Before training on a Monday morning each player will review 20 minutes of specially edited highlights of their performance for the youth team the previous Saturday – every under-18s game is filmed and coded so that a scholar can watch all of his touches – before having a one-to-one meeting with the youth-team coach, Dermot Drummy, to talk through their display in the match.

The footage is readily available to the players in a performance analysis room where they can also access everything from first-team training sessions to clips of Lionel Messi. It is an incredible tool. "I've not seen anything like this at different clubs. It's a result of really open, progressive staff," says Ben Smith, who heads up the department. "Being the club we are and how ambitious they are, they've supported what we're trying to do in terms of performance analysis."

Seeing youngsters sitting around a screen analysing Gareth Bale's volleying technique makes you realise youth football has come a long way from the days when apprentices were scrubbing boots and washing kit when they were not on the training pitch. Although Bath is big on discipline – he looks mortified at one point when he discovers a yoghurt carton on a window ledge – he sees no value in youngsters carrying out the type of chores they did in the past and politely points out that Chelsea are trying to produce footballers not cleaners.

Training carries a different theme each day and the players work in small groups. The coach draws up a session-plan beforehand and afterwards enters data on to a computer system to show how long each player has worked on a particular skill. "The days of coaches going out with a cup of tea and a stack of cones in their hand and throwing something on that is off the cuff are over," Bath says. "You are talking about an elite environment and a place for excellence and the level of detail needs to be top drawer."

After an afternoon session the players discuss training with the coach before inputting their own notes on to the computer system, including what they ate that day for breakfast. Nutrition is a big thing at Chelsea and the club are keen to make sure the players are eating well at home as well as at Cobham. "We don't want them to start ordering take-aways because they've moved out of digs," says Bath as he watches Jacopo Sala, an 18-year-old Italian, have a one-on-one cooking lesson.

Everything is in place to help the academy players succeed, which is something all of them believe they are capable of doing despite the unfavourable odds. "I don't think about what people say about Chelsea not bringing people through," says Danny Pappoe, a 16-year-old central defender from London. "You know if you are good enough you will make it, like Josh. We are all happy for him. We played with him and it makes us think all of us can do it."

Some, such as Milan Lalkovic, who moved from Slovakia in 2007 at the age of 14, have made bigger sacrifices than others. "This is my family, we have known each other a long time," says Lalkovic, who signed a professional contract in the summer and cannot speak highly enough of the training, including the way the first-team players help him when he joins in with Ancelotti's squad. "They advise you. If you do something wrong they don't shout. They talk. It's fantastic to train with them."

Lalkovic is one of four foreign scholars at Chelsea, and his name prompts an interesting discussion with Arnesen about whether the club prefer English youngsters. "I don't like to say: 'I like more English players than foreign players.' A talent is a talent," Arnesen says. "Not to be rude, but I have nothing to do with the English national team. They could win everything but if we lose I have a bad time. I am here for the fans of Chelsea, not for England. But I do think it's important for the culture of the club that there are English players."

Arnesen admits it is also important he can show Abramovich that the academy is generating as well as spending money. He reels off a list of former academy players the club has received transfer or loan fees for and claims that "in the last two years the money coming in has been more than the money coming out". In terms of the bigger picture, and what he set out to do when he arrived, he believes Chelsea's academy is now "up there with the best 10 in the world".

The day is drawing to a close and Bath is looking at a group of nine-year-olds practising volleying with either foot. "We know, the boys know and the parents know that it's going to be very difficult to get into our first-team," he says. "However, I would be confident that in years to come there will be a lot of Chelsea graduates out there making a living from professional football and that a select number will have gone into our first-team. And that is the ultimate aim."

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I thought about posting it in "General" at first but then decided it's more appropriate here.

I liked it a lot, with all the negativity surrounding the club it's nice to read something like that for a change.

It won't make good reading for the opposition fans who like to think Roman could get bored at any time and walk away...my Daughters Boyfriend was trying to tell us that if we win the CL Roman will have done what he set out to do and be off.

Anything Pro Chelsea seems a rarity lately so this from the Guardian is quite refreshing.

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A little follow-up from the same journalist


Three to watch in Chelsea's academy plus a week in the life of an Under-18 player

Nathaniel Chalobah

Age 15

Born Sierra Leone

Position Defender/midfielder

Nathaniel Chalobah is a player in a hurry. He made his England Under-17 debut at the age of 14 and played for Chelsea's first team in a pre-season friendly this summer, alongside Michael Essien and Petr Cech, during his school holidays. Comfortable in defence or midfield, Chalobah was picked up by Chelsea at Under-10 level and will join the club full-time next year. One of the stars of the England Under-17 side that won the European Championship in Liechtenstein in July – he was the youngest player in the tournament – Chalobah, who lives in south London, is destined to reach the top.

Jamal Blackman

Age 17

Born England

Position Goalkeeper

Jamal Blackman, a tall and agile goalkeeper, is one of those players who manage to slip under the radar for a while. Chelsea recruit youngsters from Under-nine level but Blackman was 13 before he joined the club's academy. A talented all-round sportsman – he was a promising cricketer, rugby player and basketball player – Blackman has impressed in his first year as a scholar at Chelsea and is expected to make his debut for the England Under-18s next week. He recently played for Chelsea's reserve side and, at 6ft 5in, he already has many of the physical attributes to be a success.

Milan Lalkovic

Age 17

Born Slovakia

Position Striker/winger

Now in his fourth season with the club, Milan Lalkovic is one of several talented overseas players in Chelsea's academy. He arrived at the club at the age of 14, when he moved to England with his father, and had only one season as a scholar before he signed a three-year professional contract. Lalkovic, who can play on the wing or as a striker, is a quick and hard-working player, and he likes to model himself on the Manchester City and Argentina forward Carlos Tevez. The Slovakia Under-19 international made two appearances for the Chelsea first team in pre-season and is a regular in the reserves.

Typical week for an Under-18 player


09.00 Breakfast

09.30-11.30 Screening (20 minutes analysing edited footage of Saturday's youth-team performance on computer); match review (one-to-one with the youth-team coach to discuss performance); gym

11.00-12.30 Training

12.15 Lunch

15.00-16.00 Training

16.30 Reflection (input information relating to training, diet etc on computer)


09.00 Breakfast

10.00 Team meeting

10.10-10.30 Activation and individual programmes (personal warm-up drills on exercise bikes etc)

11.00-12.30 Training (example theme: strength)

13.00 Lunch

13.30 Case studies (staff from each department discuss three different academy players each week – every player is discussed over a six-week period)

14.30-15.30 Technical session

16.00 Reflection


08.00-10.00 College first and second-year scholars

10.10 Team meeting

10.30 Individual programmes

11.00-12.30 Training (resistance)

13.00 Lunch

14.00 Gym or technical session

16.00 Reflection


08.00-10.00 College first and second-year scholars

10.40 Activation and individual programmes

11.00-12.30 Training (speed)

13.00 Lunch

13.45-14.45 Life skills workshop or elite library (performance analysis)

15.30 Reflection


09.00 Breakfast

10.00 Team meeting

10.10-10.30 Activation and individual programmes

11.00-12.15 Training (reactive)

12.30 Lunch

14.00 Team meeting and reflection


09.00 Report

09.30 Team meeting or reserve-team session

11.00 Youth-team fixture


Day off or reserve session.

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