Chelsea’s academy of excellence in Cobham, Surrey has been one of the landmark features of Roman Abramovich’s first decade at the club. The state of the art facilities are geared towards creating the stars of the future, and with Romelu Lukaku poised to make his first-team breakthrough next season, it appears as though this aim has been achieved.
The Blues are often criticised for failing to give their youngsters a real chance at breaking into the first team, however closer inspection reveals that some of the biggest names both within the club and beyond began their careers at Stamford Bridge.
The following players form an all-time academy graduates XI, with the ones to watch for the future noted at the end.
Goalkeeper: Peter Bonetti
Peter Bonetti is one of the greatest English goalkeepers of all time. Nicknamed “The Cat” due to his exceptional reflexes, it was only the form of national ‘keeper Gordon Banks that kept him from making his mark on the international stage.
Bonetti signed with the club as a youngster, having been released by Reading FC. He kept over 200 clean sheets in 729 appearances and continues to work with the club in an ambassadorial role, conducting stadium tours throughout the season.
Defenders: Ryan Bertrand, John Terry, Ron Harris
Ryan Bertrand started at the academy back in 2005 and travelled with the first team for their preseason tour in 2007. Jose Mourinho saw him as the natural successor to Ashley Cole at left-back, and although his development has slowed recently, his performance in the 2012 Champions League final showed his enormous potential.
John Terry signed schoolboy forms at Chelsea in 1994. Since then, under the tutelage of the likes of Marcel Desailly, Terry has become the most successful captain in the club's history. His love of Chelsea has seen him put himself on the line time and again over the years, earning him the title of Captain, Leader and Legend.
Ron "Chopper" Harris was a typical English centre half. Marauding runs up the pitch were not his thing as he instead preferred to earn his nickname as a tough-tackling defender. Harris won the FA Youth Cup with Chelsea back in 1961 and went on to make a record 795 appearances over 19 years. Since retiring he has maintained his relationship with the club by conducting stadium tours, and has a hospitality suite named after him at Stamford Bridge.
Midfield: Ray Wilkins, John Hollins, Alan Hudson, Terry Venables
Ray Wilkins began his Chelsea career as an apprentice in 1970, making his senior debut against Norwich City in October 1973. After the club were relegated the following season, Wilkins was handed the captaincy at the age of 18. He spent the next five years establishing his legendary status at the club, as he led them back to the First Division. Having become one of the most sought-after players in England, it was another relegation in 1978-79 that saw Wilkins depart Stamford Bridge for Old Trafford. “Butch” played 84 games for England and captained the side on 10 of those occasions. He also became the first England player to be sent off in a World Cup Finals match in 1986 when he threw the ball in frustration and it hit an assistant referee.
John Hollins graduated from the Chelsea youth setup in 1963 at the age of 17 and went on to set a club record for the most consecutive appearances, turning out 167 times between August 1971 and September 1974. Hollins was a defensively minded midfielder who switched to play in a full-back role towards the end of his career. Having joined the exodus of players following the club’s relegation in 1975, Hollins returned to Chelsea for the final season of his career and was immediately appointed as first team coach following his retirement as a player.
Alan Hudson partnered John Hollins in the midfield of a 4-2-4 formation. He signed for Chelsea juniors in 1968 having been rejected by his boyhood club Fulham, and went on to play a key part in Chelsea’s European success in 1971. Financial constraints saw Hudson put up for sale in 1974, and although he returned to Chelsea on a non-contract basis in 1983, he did not appear for the club again.
One of the most recognisable faces in English football, Terry Venables joined Chelsea as an apprentice in 1957. It was another three years before he made his senior debut, and he enjoyed six successful years at the club before departing under acrimonious circumstances in 1966. Venables only made two senior appearances for the national side. But by doing so, he became the first footballer to have represented England at all competitive levels.
Strikers: Bobby Tambling, Peter Osgood, Jimmy Greaves
Bobby Tambling snubbed several clubs to join Chelsea as a 15-year old in 1957. He made his senior debut two years later, and in the 11 years he spent at the club, he set a goalscoring record that stood for 47 years. Frank Lampard recently broke this record, but Tambling will still hold the honour of reaching his total in fewer games, with 370 to Lampard’s 608.
Peter Osgood is the King of Stamford Bridge. Having begun his Chelsea career as a junior, he made his debut in the League Cup in 1964 and quickly became a first-team regular. His style of play epitomised the swaggering Chelsea side of the 1960s and 70s, as he played with grace and flair, uninhibited by his 6'1" frame. Osgood was transfer listed in 1974 as manager Dave Sexton looked to stamp his authority on the squad and was snapped up by Southampton in March that year. He returned to Chelsea in 1978 and made 10 appearances before retiring as a player. His legendary status was enhanced when Ken Bates banned him, along with several other former players, in the 1990s and he was most grateful when Roman Abramovich allowed him to resume his matchday hospitality duties in 2003.
Jimmy Greaves is a demigod at Chelsea’s fierce London rivals Tottenham Hotspur, but Blues fans can have fun reminding them that it was Chelsea who nurtured his talents as a youngster. He signed for the Blues as a junior in 1956 and scored 114 goals for the youth team the following season. This led to his promotion to the senior squad at the age of 17, and he went on to score 132 goals in 169 appearances. His 41 league goals in the 1960-61 season is a club record which stands to this day, and whilst Chelsea fans can only wonder what might have been had the club's financial situation not forced his sale to AC Milan in 1961, they can be proud of the fact that one of the most prolific English strikers of all time began his career as a Blue.
The current crop of academy players who are looking to make the breakthrough into the first-team know that they are in good company. The likes of Nathan Ake, Kevin De Bruyne and Nathaniel Chalobah have shown the talent and desire to potentially join this elite list in years to come, and with the academy's lower age limit set at nine years old, there can be no doubt that it will continue to produce the stars of the future of Chelsea FC.