COMMENT: “The two of whom we do not talk about!” so said Tore Andre Flo, the new loan manager at Chelsea just this week.
The former Norway striker was joking about two former Blues, Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne, now starring with Manchester City, and the success they’re enjoying away from their former club.
But Flo could easily have been name-checking two other ex-Chelsea players now raising questions about just what is going on inside their youth system.
This week across town, Eddie Nketiah announced himself to the world. A brace off the bench fired Arsenal past Norwich City and into the Carabao Cup quarterfinals. And inside the very same 24 hours, Rhian Brewster was hitting a hat-trick for England to beat Brazil and reach the U17 World Cup final in India.
Both Londoners. Both strikers. And both former Chelsea players. Now employing their talent and potential with rival clubs. In Nketiah’s case it’s Arsenal. For Brewster, it’s Liverpool. The teen following the lead of teammate Dominic Solanke, oh yeah another ex-Blue, who not only won the U20 World Cup with England last summer, but returned from South Korea as the tournament’s Ballon d’Or.
It wasn’t like he was struggling at Cobham. Nketiah’s eye for goal was well known across the junior football scene in London. Not just among coaches and scouts, but also the players. We’re now learning that Joe Willock, who was on the pitch alongside Nketiah this week, actually talked up the striker to Arsenal coaching staff when he became available.
Those at Chelsea argue with Tammy Abraham in the same group, they could afford to allow Nketiah to move on. But at 14, the idea you’re going to release a player simply because there’s a bigger lad competing for the same position just doesn’t wash. They fumbled it, did Chelsea. Those making the decisions blew it.
In Brewster’s case, it was pure ambition. Like Nketiah, he left Chelsea at 14 – but it was his decision.
“I told them I wanted to look at my options because I didn’t see a pathway to become a first-team player there,” recalls the striker. “There were a few clubs interested but once I knew Liverpool were one of them it was an easy choice.”
So one rejected. Another blocked. And both making headlines around the world. For Liverpool, the Brewster deal was virtually a two for one. When Jurgen Klopp named Brewster, at 16, on the bench towards the end of last season, that was enough for Solanke.
In Holland, at Vitesse, they’d likened him to the Ronaldo of PSV Eindhoven. A year on and he wasn’t even being considered for Chelsea‘s U23s as his contract ran down. Claims of huge demands were not only denied by the Solanke camp, but also retracted in the press. The lad wanted to play. And like Brewster, he saw a better “pathway” for himself at Anfield than what he’d experienced with Chelsea. That his former clubmate, three years his junior, was already on Klopp’s bench only strengthened his resolve. It was time to go.
Circumstances. Timing. They’re legitimate reasons for young players slipping through the net. In conversation with Tribalfootball.com this week, we pressed Martin Edwards, the former Manchester United chairman, about their infamous clanger of signing, then releasing, Peter Beardsley before finding fame with Liverpool and England.
“That’s a difficult one,” Edwards winced, “because at the time we had a few strikers. Beardsley came in played one game, it was a Cup game, and he played 45 minutes. It was a miss, but these things happen.”
As Edwards says, letting one gem slip through can happen. But there’s still regret. For all the players and success Edwards saw as chairman, he could still vividly recall Beardsley’s short spell, his one game, with the club some 34 years ago.
For Chelsea, this week should hurt. It should hurt those who decided to release Nketiah. And it should hurt the club for failing to convince Brewster there is opportunity for young – local – players at Chelsea.
Throw in Solanke and that’s three of their own. Three young strikers now finding success away from their local club. For Chelsea, those responsible should be doing better.