News Matches

How Brexit made Chelsea look to non-league for next wave of talent recruitment

08:00 BST 05/10/2021
Chelsea's non-league players
A change in FIFA regulations and post-Brexit red tape means the Blues are no longer solely looking abroad for prime young academy talents

Chelsea’s 3-1 defeat away at Juventus last week in the UEFA Youth League will not live long in the memory of those involved with the club.

Except, perhaps, for Jayden Wareham, who scored his side’s only goal in Vinovo.

Wareham's strike was the culmination of an incredible six-month rise; he has gone from scoring for non-league Woking to netting in a competitive match between two of the world's elite clubs.

On a broader note, it represents something even more significant. 

FIFA regulations - combined with the after effects of Brexit - have meant it is harder for clubs to bring in young talents from overseas. Instead, Chelsea have begun to look at non-league talent. 

Welling United starlet Bradley Ryan became the latest young player from outside the professional game to sign up with the Blues’ Under-18 squad last month. There is also Sam McClelland, who came from Coleraine FC, albeit through in the top Northern Irish league which is semi-professional.

Declan Frith, who signed for Chelsea but is now on trial with Aston Villa, also arrived having spent time at Welling and Sutton United, with more trialists currently occupying the Surrey training base of the European champions.

One such trialist comes from Kingstonian, whose U18s are managed by Reece James' father, Nigel. His influence is being felt across the academy, as through his non-league role he can act as an extra pair of eyes and ears for Chelsea's academy director Neil Bath.

Those eyes have been drawn towards 19-year-old Bryant Akono Bilongo, a trialist who plays left-back had a £50,000 move lined up from the London-based minnows. Unfortunately, the plug was pulled at the last minute.

Still, this approach is helping to plug Chelsea’s gaps after a youth exodus in the summer. The likes of Tino Livramento, Lewis Bate, Dynel Simeu and Myles Peart-Harris all opted to leave the academy for alternative opportunities in 2021, with a couple of them already earning rave reviews at their new clubs.

It has left the Blues light in certain areas, and any new signings from European Union nations now require a work permit allocated on a points-based system. Unless players are already internationals with significant minutes at a big club, it is difficult to sign them from overseas.

"Looking at the lads Chelsea have taken from non-league, I think it just shows that they are open-minded," a source tells Goal. "I don’t think much has changed, but they are at the forefront of recruitment at every level.

"We will be at games and nine times out of 10, you’ll see a Chelsea representative at the games. They’re aggressive in that sense and don’t want to miss anything. They cover teams at every level. 

“A lot of clubs may not have the same resources as them, but could take a leaf out of their book.

"Lots of clubs work really hard to keep their age groups competitive until 16. Once they offer scholarships, they don’t look at that gap between 16 and 20. We’ve seen the B team model pop up with Brentford and Huddersfield who feel they can develop players at that age and develop and fast-track them.

"Maybe more clubs should be scouting kids of an older age who will be closer to the first team than eight or nine-year-olds who must go through the system. You have to wait 10 years for these players. Clubs like Chelsea don’t rest on their laurels with what they’ve got.

"They are looking for the next gem and know some players might not be ready at 11 or 12. I think Brexit will make it more common for these non-league players to find players down the pyramid."

With academies like Rondos Academy, Rising Ballers FC and the Ask Godders Academy in and around London, Chelsea are well-placed to seek alternative options for their older age groups. They are not being snobbish and are leading the way for clubs looking at players outside the four professional leagues.

Garry Fiore, Founder and Academy Director at Rondos Academy, knows what it takes to sign for Chelsea, having once been offered a scholarship there himself. After opting to reject his boyhood club for the ambitious youth set up at Millwall, a major knee injury ended his career.

He is now helping players outside of the major clubs improve their game through Rondos, which is connected to local non-league side Welling. He is seeing a huge increase in demand for his players.

"We just take a select group of players who are already competent, then we work on their technique - first with our brilliant coaches and systems, ultimately with a view for them to execute it in games," Fiore tells Goal.

"Chelsea have been aware of Rondos for a while, we hope they will continue working with us. The likes of Chelsea and Arsenal are looking where they weren't before. I think the pyramid is being squeezed down to the non-league clubs.

"I think non-league football is going to get stronger because there's some real talent coming in off the street. You're looking at these players who might be a bit raw. It's then up to Premier League clubs to refine and work with these players.

"The demand is as such that if our lads walk into a trial with a Rondos or Welling tracksuit then they will get signed at lower league academies because they know they have a certain level of competence.

"It's now becoming a bit of a problem that any young Rondos-Welling player is being offered quick contracts without clubs properly checking if they are ready. That's not Chelsea, but other lower-hanging clubs in the pyramid.

"It's easier to have conversations with these big clubs and they are building relationships. It is the clubs that stay in touch and look after the boys that will get the talent first.

"Clubs like Chelsea can sign any young player in the world, but it's lovely that they are looking at local players and Chelsea supporters, and it's a great feeling for someone like Ryan."

Even as some talents are being snapped up too quickly, others can find themselves denied the opportunities they deserve. 

Boyhood Chelsea fan Ryan had never been at a big academy and, perhaps merited, could have got his shot far sooner.

After several trials, the attacking midfielder has signed for his boyhood club and one of the world's finest academies.

"Brad was small, he wasn't in the system, it always missed him. He was watching others get trials but just continued to work and learned his game. He was so good that I wondered what people weren't seeing that I was seeing,” says Fiore.

"One story sums up why he got signed up. He was out of his trial with Chelsea after contact with someone with Covid. After he finished isolating, he came back to Welling after being in Cobham on trial. He said he was struggling with one particular drill in the academy.

"We did it on our pitch and he only improved a little bit, then we needed the pitch for an organised match. I told him: 'Let's do it another time’. That evening, I checked my phone and he sent me a video of him with a ball in the park.

"Bearing in mind he has the best facilities imaginable at Cobham, he just went on his own to repeat the drill and now he could execute it brilliantly and showed it on video. I used that story to inspire our new scholars about what it takes.

"He is the kid who always had the ball under his arm, that's how we know him here. I got to tell him that Chelsea were offering him a contract and it was an unbelievable moment that I will never forget. I knew he would sign for a category one academy, I am just glad that it is Chelsea, who we both support."

Like Ryan, Wareham went above and beyond while unsigned, running up hills in his native Windsor while carrying bags of rice for extra weight.

The rest of Chelsea's youth teams contain players recruited from Reading, Oxford United, Burton Albion, Cambridge United, Brentford and Crewe Alexandra. 

That kind of player will continue to come through the doors, and these stories will inspire a generation playing on parks across the country that they can still make it at a club like Chelsea.