When Frank Arnesen was sports director at Chelsea back in 2008, he enthusiastically held a briefing on the investment that the club was making in their academy.
A slick demonstration showed how the former youth system had been overhauled and the top prospects across Europe were now recruiting and developing.
As the peculiar academy alum trotted on for 15 minutes in a League Cup tie for Chelsea, it finished with a shiny video shot, set to inspiring music.
Chelsea’s captain at the time and one of their best ever players, although he was an academy alum, was notable by his absence in the presentation or film. The face of John Terry didn’t exactly suit.
Before the Roman Abramovich period and the Arnesen revolt, he had been educated in Chelsea and was thus evidently airbrushed out of history as part of the old era that had its day.These were early days, to be honest to Arnesen. But it jarred over the coming years when Chelsea would boast about their academy, which won the FA Youth Cup seven times from 2010-18: the one shining star from that academy, the captain of the club, preceded those times, while the players coming through would invariably be loaned to Vitesse Arnhem and never heard of again under the all-new reformed system.
Arensen’s logic was also not wrong.
He clarified that it was important to temper and replace the age of Abramovich splashing millions in transfers with a more balanced paradigm, whereby Chelsea will train their own stars. It was a very ambitious cultural transition.
And before the international mercenary squad was seen as Abramovich Chelsea, the place to go for a good end-of-career pay off. In 1999, they became the first Premier League team to field an all-foreign XI, causing dismay among traditionalists.
We have been waiting for years for Arnesen’s vision to come to life. In 2010, Arnesen himself will leave the club. With less fanfare, silently behind the scenes, someone took up his idea and moulded it into something real.
It was, ironically, one of the youth coaches who had been at the club since 1993, and so Neil Bath was part of the old age. As director of the academy, he began to develop some of Europe’s top young players. And yet they never appeared to be hitting the grade entirely.
Some bosses bought more than anyone into the vision, but it wasn’t necessarily the perfect atmosphere for a long-term strategy because the sack beckoned the minute you faltered. As Gael Kakuta, Josh McEachran and Patrick van Anholt began pressing into the first team, Carlo Ancelotti tried, but was sacked before he had the opportunity to nurture them.
The bulk of bosses, Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez, never lived long enough to execute anything in the long run. Ryan Bertrand, who performed well in the final as Chelsea won the Champions League in 2012, and Benitez was the first to believe in Nathan Ake, was given chances by Villas-Boas and Di Matteo.
The second stint of Jose Mourinho at the club was not synonymous with the prosperity of young talent, although he gave his first matches to Andreas Christensen. It would be fair to say that youth empowerment was not conspicuous among the many virtues Antonio Conte possessed. Maurizio Sarri didn’t seem to care that much really, either.
All the while, the idea of Abramovich of a self-made Chelsea squad hung like an ethereal illusion, something that in the real world of the top flight seems fantastic on paper but less glossy.
This is why the quantum leap introduced by Frank Lampard at the club is not always appreciated. In the early part of his press conference, speaking on Friday, he was spiky, and he is well aware that his work is at risk for the next few weeks.
Something very remarkable is happening at Chelsea, though.
It is reflected in other big-six teams, but the transition has never been stronger than at Stamford Bridge: alumni of the academy are really hitting the cut and, crucially, making a difference.