The gradual death of the FA Youth Cup

Matt Roller says the lack of first-team opportunities for academy graduates throws the Youth Cup's purpose into question

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In May 2010, Chelsea won the FA Youth Cup for the first time in 49 years thanks to a 3-2 aggregate victory over Aston Villa.

Writing for The Guardian, Dominic Fifield declared that this was the start of a “bright new age” for the club, and that the win was an “important step for a club whose big-spending days are behind them.”

Fast forward to 2017, and the Blues have the opportunity to win a fourth consecutive FA Youth Cup, and a sixth in eight years after a comprehensive 9-2 aggregate win against Tottenham in their semi-final.

Their opponents, Manchester City, also won 9-2 in their semi-final, and are appearing in their third final in as many seasons.

And yet even the quickest of glances at the two sides’ current first-team squads should demonstrate the futility of these results: they are almost entirely devoid of youth academy graduates.

Only Kelechi Iheanacho and Aleix Garcia of the 25 City players to have made a Premier League appearance this season graduated from the academy. For Chelsea, the only former youth-teamer to have started in the league this season is 36-year-old John Terry.

Indeed, the common pathway from youth team to senior recognition of the 1990s has long since gone.

A whole generation of Youth Cup winners, including Manchester United’s famous ‘Class of ’92’, West Ham’s Joe Cole and Michael Carrick, Jonathan Woodgate of Leeds and Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher, went on to hold down a spot in the England side.

But Jack Wilshere accounts for over half of the international caps won by post-2000 Youth Cup winners, with only the motley group of Jay Bothroyd, Kieran Richardson, Michael Keane, Jesse Lingard, and the disgraced Adam Johnson joining him as full internationals.

It could be suggested that this is due to the increased cosmopolitanism of Premier League clubs’ youth academies, with ever more Youth Cup winners coming to England as teenagers having spent most of their childhood overseas.

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However, a glance at the current clubs of Chelsea’s 2010 Youth Cup winners suggests otherwise.

The Blues’ starting eleven in the second leg of that final currently hold contracts with the following sides: Colchester United, Crawley Town (x2), Swindon Town, Wolfsburg, Dundalk, Sampdoria, West Ham United, Brentford and SønderjyskE Fodbold.

Left-back Aziz Deen-Conteh, meanwhile, is without a club having been released by Georgian outfit FC Zugdidi in 2016.

Youth Cup wins may appear to vindicate the millions poured into Chelsea and City’s academies by their billionaire owners, who hope their investment will turn the pair into ‘superclubs’ like Real Madrid or Barcelona. It will satisfy them to see their vanity projects successful at all levels: even if City’s senior team fails to win any silverware this season, they might have a ‘Premier League 2’, FA Youth Cup and Women’s Super League victory to look upon with contentment.

But the trophy’s purpose is surely in question at this stage, with so few players going on to play at a top-flight level later in their career.

Sadly, it is only a matter of time before more clubs follow Brentford’s lead by realising that it may well be cost-effective to shut their academy entirely.

Around a year ago, the West London club responded to restrictions placed upon their player development strategy by the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan by shutting their academy and using a ‘B-team’ model. With so much competition on their doorstep for top talent, Brentford decided that spending £2 million every year on their academy was not worthwhile, and instead are recruiting players aged 17-21 who have fallen by the wayside having promised big things previously.

Four of those who appeared for Brentford B in friendlies against Manchester United, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich XIs this season have already gone on to play for the full side, who sit mid-table in the Championship, and bigger clubs will undoubtedly be looking at the success of the Bees’ decision.

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Fifield wrote in 2010 that Chelsea’s Youth Cup win, watched by some 10,446 fans at Stamford Bridge, was a “sign of things to come”, and that their starting XI would “become familiar names” in due course. But the 2017 final looms, the competition’s very purpose is in question: it exists for all the right reasons, yet now appears to be an antiquated relic of English football’s past.