Football Features

Famous drop-outs & rejects of the Chelsea academy

By William Eldridge

Famous drop-outs & rejects of the Chelsea academy

Published: 17:49, 15 July 2023

Chelsea’s youth academy has produced some fine talent over the years, some of whom you might not have realised started out there.

Most will recognise big academy graduates of recent years like Reece James, Mason Mount, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Trevoh Chalobah and Conor Gallagher but there are players – some fledgling and some established – who began their respective careers at Chelsea that you may not be fully aware of.

Here, we take a look at 12 players who made their start in the Blues’ academy as youngsters.

1. Chris Mepham

A centre-back who can also cover as a right full-back, Hammersmith-born Mepham joined the Blues’ youth academy at the age of 10.

He was released at 14 and was turned down by both QPR and Watford before Brentford offered him a place at their academy in 2012. The 25-year-old defender broke through with the Bees during the 2016-17 season.

His impressive performances registered on the radar of Bournemouth, who snapped him up in January of 2019 for £12m. The Welshman has endured his fair share of injury problems on the South Coast but played 26 of Bournemouth’s 38 Premier League games last term. He also featured in all three of Wales’ World Cup matches in Qatar.

Total career transfer fees: £11.7m

2. Declan Rice

Rice started playing for Chelsea as an infant. At the tender age of six, he was selected for Chelsea’s academy and, like Mepham, was released by the club when he was 14.

Rice headed over to east London to join West Ham’s academy where the midfielder worked through the ranks until he made his senior debut for the club in 2015 as an 18-year-old.

From there, Rice went on to establish himself as a regular for England — helping the nation reach the Euro 2020 final — and became West Ham captain, inheriting the armband from loyal servant Mark Noble in the summer.

The 24-year-old was cherished in east London and was key as the Hammers ended their long trophy drought by winning the UEFA Conference League last season.

Of course, he was never destined to stay at West Ham for much longer and Rice has finally completed a whopping £100m (+£5m in add-ons) move to last season’s Premier League runners-up, Arsenal, where he’ll play under Pep Guardiola’s protege Mikel Arteta.

Champions League football for one of England’s elite and most historic clubs. It’s an incredible move and one that should, hopefully, take Rice’s career to a whole new level.

Total career transfer fees: £100m

3. Neil Etheridge

When Etheridge entered the Blues’ prestigious academy at the age of 14, he was playing as a centre forward but retreated to the goal line at the advice of his coach.

After spending three years with the Blues, the Philippines international switched to local rivals Fulham, where he made only one appearance in six years.

Etheridge would bounce around the lower leagues for a few years before impressing at League One side Walsall. He was then recruited by Cardiff City, whom he helped gain promotion to the Premier League in 2018. They were subsequently relegated, but Etheridge saved three penalties and stopped 67% of the shots he faced. He has since joined Birmingham City.

Total career transfer fees: £1.9m

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4. Rhian Brewster

Rhian Brewster, now 23, also played in the Blues’ academy up till around eight years ago. From there he headed up north to join Liverpool’s academy. He only made one senior appearance for the Reds before Sheffield United forked out a whopping £23.5m for his signature in 2020.

That fee was extracted from the Bramall Lane coffers mainly due to his burgeoning reputation at youth level for England — famously winning the U17 World Cup alongside Phil Foden in 2017 — and a fruitful loan spell at Swansea City, where his form yielded 11 goals in 22 games across the 2019/20 campaign.

He is yet to rediscover that form in South Yorkshire, though, but Brewster has plenty of time on his side to fulfil his once super-charged potential.

Total career transfer fees: £23.5m

5. Johann Berg Gudmundsson

The 32-year-old winger trained with the Chelsea academy but moved back to Iceland in 2008 after struggling to adjust to life in the English capital.

After a five-year spell with AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie, Gudmundsson returned to England to play with Charlton Athletic, where he made 86 appearances.

In 2016, the Iceland international joined Burnley, where he’s since made 200 appearances and become integral to the Clarets — when fit.

Total career transfer fees: £2.6m

6. Patrick van Aanholt

The Galatasaray left-back was accepted into the Chelsea Academy in 2007, aged 17.

He only made two senior appearances for the Blues in the Premier League before touring around Europe and England’s lower tiers on loan. He eventually ended up with Sunderland, for whom he made 95 appearances for.

The 19-capped Netherlands international moved to Crystal Palace in the 2016/17 season’s January transfer window, and made 134 appearances for the Eagles before joining Galatasaray in 2021. Van Aanholt spent the end of last season on loan in his homeland with PSV and will remain there until June 2024.

Total career transfer fees: £12.2m

7. Eddie Nketiah

Nketiah was raised in Lewisham, south east London, and joined Chelsea as a youngster but was released by the club at under 14s level.

Nketiah then joined Arsenal’s academy where he impressed with 15 goals in 16 appearances for the under-18s and went on to notch 12 goals in 26 appearances for the under-23 side.

With a goal on the final day of the 2018/19 season against Burnley, Nketiah became the first player to score for Arsenal in the Premier League having been born after Arsene Wenger’s 1996 appointment.

The 24-year-old most recently became an integral part of Arsenal’s unexpected Premier League title push in 2022/23. The No. 14 star offset the knee injury picked up by Gabriel Jesus at the World Cup and helped keep Mikel Arteta’s unrelenting Gunners in the race right up until the final few weeks.

Total career transfer fees: £0

8. Nathan Ake

Ake joined the Blues’ academy in 2011, aged 16. He made his senior debut for the club when he was 17 and would appear for the Londoners 17 times across all competitions before making a series of loan moves.

He finally signed for Bournemouth at the beginning of the 2017-18 season, where he appeared in all of the Cherries’ Premier League games.

Ake was simply sensational on the South Coast, but not even his defensive exploits could save Bournemouth from relegation in 2020 and he ultimately pitched up at the Etihad.

The versatile Dutchman is something of a Swiss Army knife for Pep Guardiola, slotting in where necessity dictates and bringing a refined passing range to his possession-obsessed side.

Total career transfer fees: £59.1m

9. Andy King

Most people will recognise King in another Blue shirt — Leicester City’s, to be precise — but the Welsh midfielder started his footballing career with Chelsea at the age of nine.

King, now a Leicester hero, was released by Chelsea’s academy six years later in 2004. He joined Leicester’s youth set-up aged 15 and worked his way up the ranks, earning his debut at age 18 in a 0-0 draw against Wolves in 2007.

King remained with Leicester to help them gain promotion from League One and the Championship. His loyalty paid off when the Foxes lifted the Premier league trophy for the first time at the end of their fairytale campaign in 2016.

After sixteen years with Leicester, King was released in 2020 and now turns out for Bristol City.

Total career transfer fees: £0

10. Dominic Solanke

Solanke began his career with the Blues’ under-8 team. He went on to become a big hit in the under-18 team, scoring 20 goals in 25 games and was awarded the inaugural Chelsea Academy Player of the Year award for the 2014/15 season.

Solanke couldn’t break into Chelsea’s senior squad and headed to Liverpool at the beginning of the 2017/18 season.

He made 21 appearances in the league that season but was sold to Bournemouth in January 2019 for £19m, much to the delight of Eddie Howe who expressed great excitement over the prospect of getting to develop the forward.

Unfortunately, the one-time England international was unable to translate his youth form at senior level, and along with Mepham and Ake, he crashed out of the Premier League with Bournemouth.

That relegation proved the antidote Solanke needed to really elevate his career. In two Championship seasons, he notched a whopping 44 goals and is now back in the Premier League with Bournemouth a more rounded and cultured attacking force.

Total career transfer fees: £19m

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11. Tariq Lamptey

Brighton have developed a reputation for plucking promising youngsters from across the globe and developing them into recognisable stars. Tariq Lamptey was acquired from more familiar pastures, but his immediate success was no less exciting. Graham Potter had few inhibitions entrusting the diminutive full-back with locking down the right flank, and in 2020/21 he went on to make 30 Premier League appearances for the club.

Unfortunately, a hamstring injury curtailed his rapid progress as one of the most exciting defenders in the division, but he has since returned and is now looking to rediscover his form under Roberto De Zerbi.

Total career transfer fees: £1.1m

12. Jamal Musiala

Of all the youngsters that got away, Jamal Musiala could be the one that hurts Chelsea the most. Still in his teenage years, the world-class starlet already has 20 appearances for Germany, a Champions League winner’s medal and is unquestionably the focal point upon which Bayern Munich’s attack is built around.

Musiala’s story, of course, is a well-known one. Born in Stuttgart, the teenager moved to England at the age of seven and started out in the Southampton academy before Chelsea snapped him up in 2011. He rapidly rose through the youth ranks at Cobham and was earmarked for future stardom at Stamford Bridge.

With such a grace and skill on the ball that belied his tender years, Musiala’s appeal naturally alerted heavyweights Bayern, who promptly poached the youngster from west London and gave him a platform upon which to thrive. Only just turned 20, it is genuinely frightening to think how far Musiala can go in the game.

Total career transfer fees: £172k

Grand total: £231,272,000