During last Friday’s pre-match press conference, Chelsea Head Coach Maurizio Sarri confirmed that he would make a few changes for yesterday’s game against relegation-threatened Fulham, as many players were starting to show the effects of playing all 210 minutes of the intense matches against Tottenham Hotspur and the Carabao Cup Final against Manchester City respectively.

With this in mind, many expected Sarri to rest a few of the regulars – Eden Hazard, César Azpilicueta, Jorginho and N’Golo Kanté for example – and give starts/more minutes to the likes of Andreas Christensen, Emerson, Ruben Loftus-Cheek…

…And a certain Callum Hudson-Odoi. Especially CHO.

Photo Source: UEFA

Whilst Christensen and Emerson both started, and Loftus-Cheek continued to ease his way back into more playing time after his recent back injury, Hudson-Odoi once again missed out on that elusive first Premier League start for the Blues and had to settle to watching from the bench as Chelsea continued their recent upturn in form, winning 2-1 at Craven Cottage.

Some fans hope that Callum will now get a start in the first leg of our Round of 16 clash against Dynamo Kyiv (Kiev) in the Europa League this coming Thursday. Some, however, expect that to not be the case and that CHO will once again will be warming the bench.

With everything that happened during the whole of January in regards to the constant speculation surrounding Callum and Bayern Munich, many still worry that no current youngster – in the Roman Abramovich era even to be precise – from the Chelsea Academy has broken through and have become a cornerstone of the current Chelsea team. Makes you worry about the future crop of youngsters too.

All of us would love to know what is going through the mind of Callum and many other youngsters when it comes to whether or not the academy prospects will ever have a genuine chance in the first-team.

This then gave me an idea…

How about we find out what it’s really like to be a youth prospect within the Chelsea Academy by asking our very own senior writer here at Chelsea Echo, Dan McCarthy.

For those who are not aware, Dan was actually a former player at the prestigious Chelsea Academy – so what better way to find out what it’s like for a youth prospect at Cobham than to pick Dan’s Brain and discuss his very own experience there.

Let’s start at the very beginning – how Dan became a youth player for Chelsea Football Club…

Terry Sazio – How did you first get seen by Chelsea? What was the process in you becoming part of the Chelsea youth system?

Dan McCarthy – “I had previously been in numerous academies throughout London and surrounding areas from the age of 4 years old. Once you’re in the “system” if you like, many scouts and coaches know of your talents. I then attended a soccer school sponsored by Chelsea Football Club and impressed the coaches there throughout the week. I remember playing in the final game of the week in front of a few coaches and scoring a few goals (I was a forward as a youngster, before dropping back into midfield.) My dad was then approached, whilst he was there to watch, and they ironed out the details. Next thing I knew, I was driving in my dad’s van to the training ground in my Chelsea gear, and that’s when I met the coaches, surrounded by top academy prospects and got on the field. It was pretty nerve-racking, I honestly didn’t know if I belonged. My dad made a conscious effort to protect all the finer details/behind the scenes stuff away from me. As an ex-pro himself, he was very cautious of how dark the game was, and with me being so young, he wanted me to purely enjoy and focus on the game, without any added pressure.” 

Every kid’s dream – no matter what club you support – is to play for your club. We’ve all dreamed of it, still do even when we’re long past the age of making it. That dream will simply never leave us. That includes me too. I had a go at making the dream come true when I was young, even got to the point of being offered trials with Millwall (don’t judge!), but alas it was not meant to be. As for Dan, his chance was about to begin…

TS – Tell us about your experience at the Academy.

DM – “My experience was fantastic. In all honesty, just putting on the badge every day and going out to play the game I love was enough for me. Everything else that came with it was just added incentives. I was extremely impressed by the facilities at the club. The training was tough, the conditioning, diet requirements, playing against older players, constantly having to impress, specified sessions (for example, having to use your weak foot for an entire session) were all on another level to what I was used too. I learnt a tremendous amount and was coached by some of the most knowledgeable coaches in the game. It was what every young kid strived for.”

Upon hearing this made me very envious, but in the nicest way possible. Hearing someone you’ve known to come to respect and have a friendship with, that has a genuine chance of ‘living the dream’… you overwhelmingly want them to achieve. And this is just the facilities, the day-to-day of it all.

There’s also the players I got to hear about…

TS – What players did you play alongside? If any of them went on to ’make it’, could you see the talent in them?

DM – “I trained with a few familiar names. The likes of Michael Mancienne, Gaël Kakuta, Fabio Borini, Josh McEachran, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and a few more. Each of them had differentiating qualities which made them elite – Michael and Gael were extremely athletic and strong, Fabio was a clinical goalscorer, Josh was a fantastic talent, and someone I enjoyed playing with/watching as I saw similarities there with myself. RLC was always a household name, always touted for the future. He had/has it all.” 

Photo Source: The FA

Hearing the names of those mentioned, alongside many other academy stars we expected to make the Chelsea first-team – Scott Sinclair, Patrick van Aanholt, Lewis Baker, Dominic Solanke to name just a few – makes you wonder, and question too, how no one so far has established themselves.

Crazy when you think about it.

TS – How long were you part of Chelsea’s academy?

DM – “Around 3 years. It was a long 3 years in ways, with a lot of training and expectation at such a young age, also with the travel etc. However, it was short in ways also, as you wanted to be there forever. Football moves quick and is very cut-throat, and it’s only getting harder…”

Today’s football in a nutshell. Very few teams nowadays get the chance to bring through players on a consistent basis – due to how football is no longer just a sport but is just as much (if not more now) a business. And with any business, money is expected to be earned, quickly. And in football, the best way to make money is through success… the instant kind. The sense of instant gratification is – in my opinion – damaging football as no one bar a few – players, managers, kids – are given a chance to naturally establish themselves. If you’re not ‘providing the goods’ immediately, then you’re deemed to be a failure. Harsh, very harsh indeed. This happens across the whole of football.

Especially within the youth system more than most…

TS – Why were you (unfortunately) let go and how did you/do you feel about it?

DM – “I was let go due to my size fundamentally. I was very thin and not very tall at the time, making it difficult to compete with the likes of the above. Back then, size and athleticism were extremely important. Whilst I could compete within the mainstay of the group, admittedly, I wasn’t ready for that next level. Of course, being let go by your boyhood club was tough, I remember the car ride home vividly, the dream was over for me. Unfortunately, my growth spurt came slightly too late. It was a harsh way to go out, but looking back at it now, it was the right call. That’s football.”

No one ever wants to go through this, whether it’s being released or being forced to leave your boyhood club. No one. It’s the dream. With this in mind, we start to discuss Dan’s time at the Chelsea academy in whether he can relate (in any way) the current situation that surrounds Callum and what he ‘s currently going through himself…

TS – From your personal experience in the youth system – what do you think of the current situation regarding Callum? Sympathize? Understand?

DM – “I sympathize and understand. I sympathize with Callum’s situation because it’s obvious how much of a talent he is, and the fact he is far too good to be stuck playing youth football. When you have a player like that, you have to remove the ceiling and watch him grow. However, I understand it too. With the instability in the club currently and the obvious void between the youth side and first team, opportunities and trust are both hard components to come by. I remember talking about it back in the day, and I remember Jody Morris in an interview recently summing it up well. The jump is certainly bigger than many people imagine, and it’s easy to ruin such a promising career with incorrect decisions at such an important time in their development. Nevertheless, I believe Callum belongs and deserves his chance.”

Many academy prospects others have come and gone since the Roman Abramovich era began. The fact that John Terry was the last academy player to genuinely break into the first-team and become a pillar of the club says it all. In recent years, we’ve seen glimpses of someone having the potential to succeed and end the 18+-year wait for another academy prospect to truly prosper. The odd appearance/start here and there gave us hope, only for them to move on and shatter our joy once again.

Then in January of last year, Callum Hudson-Odoi became the latest potential prospect to make his debut, in the 3-0 victory over Newcastle United in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup. At first, we just thought “another kid that’ll be gone in a couple of years”. But this time around, it felt different, in a good way. Not only was it obvious that Hudson-Odoi is good, but in fact, he is really good. Good enough to dispose of current first-team players and make a spot in the starting XI, his own.

Crazily enough, it’s not just Callum either. But also Ethan Ampadu and both Andreas Christensen & Ruben Loftus-Cheek (to a lesser extent). Many believe they’re all good enough to be playing on a regular basis for the first-team, especially with the current ‘quality’ we have.

Something I agree with wholeheartedly. Which begs the question…

TS – What do you think could be the reason(s) why Callum – along with Ethan (Ampadu)/Andreas (Christensen) – are not getting as much game time as we hope (the fans) would get? And do you understand why that’s the case?

DM – “Personally, I think a lot of it is down to both the board, and the current manager. I believe the board are at fault for not perhaps pushing the use of youth (a talented system at that) as far as maybe it could, instead choosing to primarily pile all the pressure into immediate results. This is where the manager comes in. With Sarri focusing all on his energy into getting his beloved philosophy right, I believe he simply does not trust the youngsters to execute it in the early stages of it being introduced, also the pressure behind the scenes to win, mixed in with the power of the dressing room coming from the older statesman, all culminates to the youth suffering, which is unfortunate. In all honesty, I just feel the club as a whole aren’t brave enough to implement it, having seen not many clubs have done it too successfully in England. I understand it, it’s a result business, you’re a new coach and you want to impress your employer and play by their rules. However, I don’t fully agree with it.”

Dan shares the frustration that pretty much sits with every single Chelsea fan right now. Pressure on the (current) manager to immediately succeed, the apparent ‘player power’, club run badly from a footballing perspective, the academy used recently solely as a ‘cash cow’… the number of issues that Chelsea currently has is borderline insane. No wonder there is an overwhelming sense of frustration, dejection and lack of trust from the fans to the club. Especially when it comes to the youth and our future.

If only the club were to simply open their eyes and realise the goldmine they have. It would solve so many problems we currently have…

Photo Source: Getty

TS – What is your personal opinion on the Academy? Is it one of the best in the world as the likes of Jody Morris/John Terry have said recently? Can it be improved even? Does the club need to show more faith in it?

DM – “My personal opinion is that Chelsea is home to some extremely exciting talent. The coaching staff at the youth level are/were phenomenal, the facilities are obviously fantastic, and the playing philosophy is spot on. However, the discord between the first-team and youth is what makes the academy suffer. Also, in all honesty, I do believe some of our talents are hyped up way too much, and far too young, creating enormous pressure on their shoulders. It is a lot harder to impress and play at the level they need too than it seems, and it’s even harder to step up to the next level. Can it improve? No doubt. More players need to be pushing into the first team, and the club needs to replace fundamental coaches who have now left. The board certainly need to take a foothold and take advantage of the talent currently at the club, and show them the light at the tunnel, before it’s too late. You have to remember, they are still very young. These players will get frustrated, emotional, and see their futures elsewhere if Chelsea isn’t careful.” 

If the club can find that ‘perfect storm’ – and show belief in it – of giving the manager time to integrate the youth and also have the patience the reap the rewards in the long-term… we will be laughing in no time. All it needs is that one decision, that one opportunity. That one player.

Callum is that player to wake the club and realise this. I believe he is, the fans do so too. We just hope now the club feels that way as well. Give him the chances he needs and deserves. If we lose Callum, we might as well give up on the academy. He’s a generational talent in the making.

Hearing this from Dan’s perspective is truly fascinating as it does make you realise how hard the journey is for a youth prospect to make it, especially at Chelsea. With this in mind, it makes you think about…

TS – What would you do if you were in Callum’s shoes?

DM – “If I were Callum, I would stay. Purely based on the fact he knows the club well, from the backroom staff to the first team players now. He has grown up in the familiarity of the club, is very much comfortable in the culture he finds himself in and is profoundly loved by many at Chelsea. I know it’s his dream to play consistently for Chelsea Football Club, and he isn’t far away from making that a reality. He is still only 19 years old, which is so young, younger than many fans realize. He has to remain patient, continue to impress his team-mates every day in training to gain that trust (often underrated) and wait for a manager who truly believes in him, and for his time. It will come.” 

Hearing this from Dan makes me genuinely believe he will stay. Why? Because he truly does care about Chelsea as it’s his boyhood club. Like Dan before him, he’s had the rare chance of being given an opportunity to succeed and fulfil the lifelong dream of many kids around the world. We want all the best for him. At that best is by staying at SW6 in both mine and Dan’s opinion.

With everything that has been discussed, Dan has some appropriate words of wisdom for Callum…

TS – Do you have any advice for Callum?

DM – “He should probably be giving me advice, to be honest! But if I had to say anything, it would be that old cliché, trust the process. He is loved, his time will come, and the wait/sacrifice will be worth the dream that is achievable I believe in the near future.” 

We all hope that for him, every single Chelsea fan hopes Callum becomes the one (the CHOsen one?) to break the status quo at Chelsea and do what many, many others have tried to do in the past… Make the precarious path of academy wonderkid, all the way to first-team superstar. Good luck to him. In fact, good luck to them all.

Photo Source: Guardian

There you have it. A true insight into what it is really like for a youth player to try and attempt (what feels like) the almost impossible… play in the first-team for Chelsea Football Club. I personally found it fascinating to find out more about Dan’s journey – the highs as well as the lows – and it made appreciate even more what dedication, and luck, is needed to become a professional footballer, whilst also understanding the stress and pressure is under the club(s) to bring through homegrown players whilst achieving instant success in this ever-demanding industry of ours. This sport that we passionately love.

Hearing about Dan’s journey and how his experience is relatable to what Callum is going through right now definitely puts a lot of things into perspective. There is no simple solution or quick fix when it comes to something like the current issue surrounding Hudson-Odoi. those on the brink of having a genuine chance with the first-team and many others currently within our academy system.

Everything is complex and has to be solved in the right way. This is not FIFA or Pro Evolution Soccer, nor is it Football Manager. This is real, shortcuts and cheap fixes will only do more harm than good. I just hope – along with Dan – that the right way will benefit everyone. Especially Callum.

His playing career might have come to an end, but his football one has most definitely not. Dan is now a full-time football coach, coaching kids in Los Angeles, America – hoping one day that his personal experience and knowledge he has gained over the years will help someone else fulfil their lifelong dream… to make it on the world stage in the greatest sport of them all.

To get to know more about Dan and his footballing journey – you can find him via Twitter (@MaccaSport).

Thanks for reading.

Terry Sazio