Chelsea’s Under-18s are on their way to another FA Youth Cup semi-final on March 14. The young Blues are seeking a fourth consecutive title in the competition, but the academy program has faced criticism due to its lack of local representation, and also the scarce progression of kids from that level into the first team.
Perhaps it’s just a case of snapping up the most promising and physically imposing players on the continent, and not really honing their talents thereafter.
One player who knows the setup well is Renny Smith, a former Chelsea prospect now plying his trade for Vicenza in Italy’s Serie B.
“I remember one session we did at Chelsea – a crossing session,” Smith told theScore. “It must’ve been just under 100 crosses, and not once did we score.
“It just seems that the training is all about the crosses and getting on the end of them.”
Perturbed with being fielded as a centre-half at Chelsea – a position which didn’t make the most of Smith’s obvious talents – he moved to Arsenal in his teens.
His initial impression of English coaching, however, didn’t improve greatly.
“I was getting a little bit alienated, to be honest,” the midfielder continued. “A little bit alienated in terms of what the coaches wanted, what we were doing in games, how the teams would play.”
Smith was simply of a different ilk. The 20-year-old relished playing futsal on a weekly basis in his native London, with his on-the-floor rigours a far cry from the push-and-run tactics which haunt the English game nearly 70 years after Arthur Rowe’s then-revolutionary Tottenham Hotspur side.
But his experiences are a damning indictment from a recent graduate from two of the most storied clubs in the country. After years of favouring industry over any other quality, the building of St George’s Park and sentiments of England manager Gareth Southgate offer encouragement for a generation where technical ability and creative freedom are given greater consideration.
Unfortunately for Smith, those initiatives weren’t implemented quickly enough.
“And obviously at Arsenal and Chelsea it’s difficult to make it into the first team in the first place. I didn’t get much of a chance,” he said.
His move from Arsenal to Burnley when aged 18 didn’t fare so well either, with manager Sean Dyche staunchly loyal to his regular starters and an advocate of defensively conscious, route-one football. It was confusing why the Clarets boss signed him in the first place, but Smith has nothing but respect for Dyche.
“He’s got jokes but he’s a hard taskmaster,” Smith shared. “He’ll give you a bollocking if you step out of line.”
It’s no great surprise that the adventurous Smith looked overseas for his next move, transferring to Italian soil the same day as Manchester City’s Joe Hart. Represented by the same agency of Saint-Etienne’s Jordan Veretout, Lazio’s Jordan Lukaku, and Trabzonspor’s Hugo Rodallega, the borders weren’t closed to the midfielder, but it’s not a common path walked by British players.
“They’re comfy. It’s not portrayed in the media, ‘You can do this, you can go there.’ Everything is England, England, England,” said the nomadic Colin Kazim-Richards in an excellent interview with Nick Ellerby for the Guardian.
“I’ve seen guys that got released from Manchester United and rather than even going down to London to a League One or Championship side they’re staying in Manchester playing amateur football.”
Smith, an Austria youth international through his maternal grandfather, is more positive about this route being tested by players due to no clear sight of top-level senior football. There is still a tentativeness from his contemporaries though.
“A lot more players are now doing it,” he told theScore. “They were getting stuck in reserve teams and they’re not really pushing on into first-team squads. You’ve got to be brave to do it, but I (still) don’t think a lot of English players want to do it – which is different from the rest of Europe.”
Smith was sent out on loan to third-tier Mantova at the end of January – something he believes may be down to Vicenza handler Pierpaolo Bisolo becoming tired of his improving yet basic grasp of Italian – and has been an instant hit with his first professional goal and two assists in five outings. He’s still acclimatising to the simpler aspects of his new country of residence, though.
“It’s a lot different to what I’m used to: they drive on the right, steering wheel on the left. The food is different,” admitted Smith.
He bemused employees in a hotel after his arrival when he tried to order a full English breakfast, and is still haunted by what the locals barely fill themselves up with each morning.
“I’m always moaning about the breakfasts,” said Smith. “All they have is a shot of espresso with sugar and a croissant.”
At least his training diet of tactically astute Italian coaching and denunciation of long balls and crossing is satisfying his hunger. Perhaps one day he’ll return to his homeland, and help signal a fresh generation of creative, innovative English (and, in Smith’s case, part-Austrian) players.
(Photos courtesy: Renny Smith)