As they stood on the Wembley touchline, patiently waiting to be introduced for England against Brazil, in front of more than 80,000 supporters, Tammy Abraham and Dominic Solanke may have cast their minds back to May 20, 2015.
That day was the last occasion the duo had shared a pitch. It was at Norwich City’s Carrow Road and both were wearing the blue of Chelsea. Yet the future England internationals were not representing the first team, they were playing for the club’s under-21s.
It’s a mark of how far the two strikers have come that in the space of two-and-a-half years they’ve gone from playing in front of a handful of spectators to representing their country. However, the pair are far from alone.
In 2017, a whopping 11 Chelsea academy graduates made their international debuts. It’s an impressive achievement and testament to the work being done by countless members of staff at the Blues’ Cobham training facility.
And yet Chelsea often receive stinging criticism for how they handle young players.
Many disagree with the Blues’ army of loanees, which this season stands at 32, and the other big issue is the lack of opportunities afforded to these youngsters by the club that owns them.
Is there a glass ceiling at Chelsea for younger players nurtured through their youth ranks? Perhaps. Certainly several have drifted away from the club after early promise. None so more famous than Josh McEachran.
The young midfielder had sparkled for Chelsea’s youth sides and appeared to be a diamond that just needed a little polishing.
He made 22 first-team appearances, the majority of which came under Carlo Ancelotti. But when the Italian was sacked, McEachran’s Chelsea career was effectively ended.
“I think, at 17 or 18, I was good enough to play for Chelsea,” the midfielder said earlier this year in an interview with the Telegraph. “I still think I could play for Chelsea. It’s just about the opportunity.
“You need confidence, don’t you? Carlo believed in me. I was going onto the pitch knowing the manager was behind me most weeks and I had that confidence.”
McEachran lost that confidence after a string of unsuccessful loan moves. With hindsight, Chelsea mishandled the former England Under-21 international and it’s hugely disappointing that such a talented youngster is now just a squad player at Championship Brentford.
But the mistakes Chelsea made with McEachran, have become fewer and fewer in recent years.
Now when a player leaves the Blues on loan, especially if they have talent in abundance, Chelsea demand to know how much game time they’ll receive, the style of football utilised and where they’ll fit into a team.
Bristol City found that out in the summer of 2016 when they approached the Blues about borrowing Abraham for the campaign ahead.
“Lee (Johnson) went to Chelsea’s training ground and presented to Michael Emenalo, while I went to Stamford Bridge and met Roman Abramovic’s board of directors,” the Robins chief operating officer Mark Ashton told the Bristol Post.
“They had tried these arrangements with English clubs before and, in their words, they hadn’t worked. They gave me a list of clubs they would not do business with.
“I asked them to give us Tammy for the season and then judge us on what we do, not what we say. I told them we would show them what we could do and then build a long-term relationship.”
That attention to detail is a common theme in Chelsea’s academy. The Blues may not get it right at first-team level, but the players in their youth system are receiving an unrivalled education on the pitch.
They’re coached expertly, with a number of former Blues players, such as Andy Myers, involved in the youth set-up while the likes of Paulo Ferreira, Tore André Flo and Eddie Newton help oversee the loan network.
Everything Chelsea’s academy staff do is geared towards developing elite level footballers. The reality is many of these youngsters will not make it with the Blues for a variety of reasons, but the old argument of them all not being good enough no longer rings true.
The 11 Chelsea academy graduates capped at international level last year were Jack Cork, Gaël Kakuta, Jeremie Boga, Mukhtar Ali, Ola Aina, George Saville, Nathan Aké, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Ethan Ampadu, Solanke and Abraham.
Those 11 players are all at various stages of their careers. Some have moved away from Chelsea after failing to make a single first-team appearance – Aké was sold for £20million to Bournemouth two summers ago – others are out on loan while 17-year-old Ampadu, who joined from Exeter City in the summer, is a regular in the Blues’ first-team squad.
Tellingly though, all are good enough to have represented their countries which, no matter the criticism Chelsea receive, is testament to the job being done by the club.
So if a young player is offered the choice to join the Blues before they’re even a teenager, should they take it? The answer is undoubtedly yes, given the guidance they will receive.
But should they stay beyond their 16th birthday? Well, unless something dramatically changes the answer is likely to remain, no.
Solanke was one of the Blues’ brightest talents having scored goal after goal for the club’s youth sides. He had the usual loan spell at Chelsea’s unofficial sister club Vitesse Arnhem and impressed to the point where he’d earned comparisons with Swedish legend Zlatan Ibrahimović.
“With the most impossible balls he knows how to do something beautiful from nothing,” former Vitesse Arnhem defender Ferdi Vierklau said in 2015.
“In that way, he is reminiscent of Zlatan Ibrahimović. He’s only 18 years old and already doing so well. I expect he will only play one season as Chelsea will take him back and may want to loan him to an English club.”
But last summer Solanke left Chelsea for Liverpool after refusing to sign a new contract. He said it wasn’t about the money, it was about the lack of opportunity at Stamford Bridge.
It’s a valid point. Those 11 players who’ve been capped by their countries this year have made a combined total of 77 first-team appearances for Chelsea, only 30 of which have been starts.
The hope is figure should increase through Ampadu while Loftus-Cheek and Abraham, back from loan spells in the Premier League with Crystal Palace and Swansea City respectively, were also tipped for first-team involvement.
Yet after three Premier League fixtures under new head coach Maurizio Sarri Loftus-Cheek has only warmed the bench while Abraham looks set to leave on loan.
If they’re overlooked once again, Chelsea will create a lasting problem. Young players are not naïve and, despite what many think, their sole focus isn’t money.
They want to play, to have the chance to prove they’re better than others. If Chelsea don’t offer that then they’ll find a club that will. The Blues have a fine education system for young footballers, they must make sure they benefit from it.