15th September 2010 at Stamford Bridge held a special significance at that time for many Chelsea fans. This was the day a certain 17-year-old Joshua Mark McEachran made his first team debut in a Champions league group stage victory over MSK Zilina. He replaced Yossi Benayoun after 79 minutes of the game had been played.
From then on, McEachran’s stock began to rise. On 22nd September, McEachran played a 30-minute cameo in a League Cup defeat to Newcastle United but the fans and the management believed they had just witnessed the birth of the ‘Next Big Thing.’ On that night, Josh showed a footballing brain, maturity and calmness on the ball well beyond his age.
Then Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti had put his complete faith in this 17-year-old and as a result he ended up with 17 appearances in his debut season for an ageing Chelsea side who were also the defending champions at that point. His performances won him the Chelsea Youth Player of the Year award in May 2011.
Many at that time may have believed that this was the turning point for Chelsea’s youth setup. Remember the only Chelsea player to have made it to the first team from the youth setup in the Abramovich era had been the club captain John Terry.
But things started to change once Don Carlo was sacked unceremoniously as Chelsea manager. McEachran found himself out of favour under the new Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas. Subsequent loan spells to Swansea City, Middlesbrough, Watford, Wigan Atheltic and Vitesse turned out to be disasters. On 10th July 2015, his fate was sealed.
Now 22, he faced the reality of never being able to realize his dream of making it as a first-team regular at Stamford Bridge. He signed for Championship side Brentford on a 4-year deal for a fee believed to be ‘less than a million’.
What happened to McEachran?
But what really turned Josh from a great talent to a below average player? He was a young English player who had the world at his feet at a mere age of 17. There were comparisons with club legend Frank Lampard and Barcelona man Andres Iniesta and they were largely down to the immense potential the youngster showed.
To know what went wrong, we must first look at the ideal conditions to breed young talent such as McEachran. The very first thing that is needed is stability at the club. Whether you consider Sir Alex Ferguson’s “Class of 92” or La Masia’s “Golden Generation”, one thing you would notice is stability at the club.
Unfortunately, those were tempestuous times at Stamford Bridge and managers were sacked at an alarming rate. The consistent pressure of delivering results saw no manager take the gamble of experimenting with youth players and as a result talents like McEachran suffered.
Secondly, the player must take a part of the blame too. Had he done well on his loan spells, he would still have been a part of Jose Mourinho’s plans at the club.
Is Chelsea to blame?
Let’s take a closer look at the model Chelsea have followed. The first decade of the Abramovich era was about developing a base, an ideal launch pad for the future and thus turning the club into a world class one. Of course that comes with its own share of problems and the youth setup suffered because of that. But now if you delve in to the way the club has been managed since the return of ‘The Special One’ (start of the second decade of the Abramovich era), one would notice that things have changed.
The club and the manager are both are looking for stability. The team of Marina Granovskaia, Michael Emenalo, Bruce Buck and Jose Mourinho have done excellent transfer business. The club hasn't splashed out like it used to but have still strengthened the squad while managing success in all that.
Things have changed in the academy as well. Neil Bath has been brought in for Frank Arnesen, coaches like Jody Morris, Adi Viveash, Joe Edwards who have known the club for a long time are now in charge of the youth sides. Former players like Tore Andre Flo have been involved with the youth sides as well.
The Chelsea under 18 side that played the FA youth Cup final gives you an amazing insight into this change. 10 players from the starting 11 in that side were English and 9 of those were from Chelsea’s own catchment area. Now this is something you don't see often at a top English club. In the process of development, the club saw enormous success winning 4 FA Youth Cups in 6 years and the UEFA Youth league as well this year.
Another major factor is that Chelsea have never had such a talented pool of youngsters ever. The likes of Dom Solanke, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham, Izzy Brown, Nathan Ake, Jay Da Silva, Andreas Christensen, Charly Musonda, Jeremie Boga, Lewis Baker and Jake Clarke-Salter are massive talents to be honest.
Making the best of loan spells
If they perform, they are bound to play for Chelsea one day. Loftus-Cheek looks like the closest to be a regular at Chelsea. And I am sure he will be an integral part of the squad next year. You look at the Thibaut Courtois and you realize that it’s entirely possible. To displace a club legend and one of the top 3 goalkeepers in the world at present in Petr Cech was an impossible task in itself and especially at a club like Chelsea. But he performed on his loan spells and the rewards came along.
Many will say rewind five years and people were saying the same about Josh McEachran, but the difference here is that firstly it's a huge talent pool to choose from and secondly the mentality at the club has changed for sure.
You never saw a Roman Abramovich or a Jose Mourinho or a John Terry at youth games regularly at that time. You do now! Our best bet according to me would be Loftus-Cheek who has already been at the club for 12 years. Let’s just hope he doesn't turn out to be another Josh McEachran. Though I am sure he has it in him to be a Chelsea first team regular.