Football Features

Famous drop-outs & rejects of the Chelsea academy

By William Eldridge

Published: 16:30, 30 September 2020 | Updated: 18:29, 1 October 2020

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 like Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Ryan Bertrand and John Terry, 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 turned down by both QPR and Watford before Brentford offered him a place at their academy in 2012. The 22-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 last year for £12m. The Welshman was integral as the Cherries finished the 2018/19 campaign in 14th place, but an injury-hit season last time out restricted him to just 12 appearances in the league.

As a result, Bournemouth dropped out of the top flight, but Mepham has since returned to full fitness and has played all three Championship games so far this term, as Jason Tindall’s side currently sit fourth and hope to bounce back at the first time of asking.

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.

Rice made a name for himself in the 2018/19 season while earning many plaudits with his confidence in possession and his fine ability to break up play.

The England international has gone from strength to strength and now features as the stand-in captain when Mark Noble is absent. He has already made over 100 Premier League appearances for the Hammers at 21, and Frank Lampard is seemingly desperate to bring him back to Stamford Bridge.

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.

Having picked up a hamstring injury last season, which kept him sidelined for two months, Alex Smithies deputised in his absence and eventually cemented a starting berth, resulting in Etheridge moving to Birmingham City this transfer window.

4. Rhian Brewster

Rhian Brewster, now 20, also played in the Blues’ academy up till around five years ago. From there he headed up north to join Liverpool’s academy. He is yet to make a senior league appearance for the Reds but signed a five-year contract with the club in the summer of 2018.

Brewster might have progressed into the senior ranks sooner if it wasn’t for a serious ankle injury he sustained two years ago and subsequent set-backs. The young forward was prolific during a loan spell at Swansea last season, notching 11 goals in 22 games as Steve Cooper’s side reached the play-offs.

Despite a fruitful pre-season as well, Brewster appears quite far down the pecking order and has been continuously linked with a move away from Anfield this window, with a host of Premier League clubs said to be queuing up for his signature.

5. Johann Berg Gudmundsson

The 29-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 newly promoted Burnley, where he’s since made over 100 appearances and become integral to the Clarets — when fit.

6. Patrick van Aanholt

The Crystal Palace 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 30-year-old Netherlands international moved to the Eagles in the 2016-17 season’s January transfer window.

Since joining Palace, Van Aanholt has scored more Premier League goals from open play (13) than any defender in the division.

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 21-year-old spent last season on loan at Leeds under Marcelo Bielsa, but returned to Arsenal in January and went on to make 17 Premier League appearances. He has become an important member for Mikel Arteta and tussles for the starting No. 9 role with Alexandre Lacazette.

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 time 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 and he has since joined Man City.

9. Andy King

Most people will recognise King in another Blue shirt – Leicester City’s, to be precise – but the English 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 over the summer and is yet to find a new club.

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, where he is now helping the club to rebuild in the second tier.

11. Domingos Quina

The 20-year-old attacking midfielder trained with Benfica and Chelsea’s academy during his developmental years. He was offered a contract by Arsenal, but decided to join West Ham in 2016.

Quina subsequently left the Hammers and signed for Watford on a four-year deal. The Portugal under-20 international did not appear for West Ham in the Premier League, but he made his league debut for the Hornets in a 2-1 away loss to Manchester City in 2018/19.

In December 2018, he became the youngest Watford player to score in the Premier League in the club’s 3-2 victory against Cardiff City, and he has already appeared in all three of the Hornets matches in the Championship this season.

12. Tariq Lamptey

Lamptey has proven a revelation for Brighton this season after he joined the Seagulls from Chelsea in January. Having featured and impressed for Chelsea against Arsenal in December last year, Frank Lampard allowed the youngster to leave as he already had plenty depth at right-back, with Reece James and Cesar Azpilicueta ahead of him in the pecking order.

Lamptey vs James per 90 minutes this season (Premier League)

stats via Squawka’s Comparison Matrix

Lampard may now look back at that decision with a tinge of regret as Lamptey has really come to the fore since relocating to the Amex, playing an influential role at right wing-back under Graham Potter and reportedly alerting Bayern Munich to his exploits, both defensively and offensively.

Blessed with plenty of speed, the technically brilliant full-back has been dazzling with his dribbling ability, winning the most fouls of any defender this season so far (10), as well as providing plenty of energy on the flank for Brighton. This one could really come back to bite the Blues. Was Lampard perhaps too hasty?