It’s fair to say that Chelsea aren’t best known for fast tracking youth into their first team. No youth player has become a regular first-teamer (if such is quantifiable), since John Terry almost 16 years ago.
Yet with 12 trophies – 14 if you count Community Shields – in as many years under Roman Abramovich’s ownership, you’d be hard pushed to find many aggrieved Blues’ fans.
However, with an enforced change of transfer policy under the new Financial Fair Play guidelines and Jose Mourinho’s recent admission that if the current crop of youth players weren’t involved with England in the next few years he would shoulder the blame, perhaps it’s time to stop thinking of Stamford Bridge as the ‘graveyard’ for the academy talents.
One of those talents who most certainly will be in the thoughts of Mourinho is Patrick Bamford.
Snapped up for £1.5m in January 2012, Bamford technically isn’t a product of Chelsea’s youth system. Having been at Nottingham Forest since the age of 8, Bamford’s excellent performances in the FA Youth Cup tempted Chelsea into making the purchase, despite just 12 minutes of first team action under his belt.
Forest chairman Frank Clark called it “a sign of the times”, but the fee represented good value considering the player had six months left on his contract. Then 18 years old, Bamford took to his new surroundings quickly, making his debut and scoring twice for the reserves in a win against Gillingham.
That form continued as he plundered six goals in seven youth games, especially impressive given he was often deployed on the wings or just behind Romelu Lukaku, despite favouring the striking role for his own.
A move to League One side MK Dons took Bamford into the world of first-team football in November 2012, and once again he provided a memorable debut, with three assists against Colchester United.
An unfortunate spat of injuries delayed Bamford’s projected course, but with his loan at the Dons extended, scored his first professional goal in a 2-1 defeat to Crewe Alexandra in March 2013.
That result all but ended the club’s promotion aspirations, but Bamford returned to MK Dons at the start of the 2013-14 season for a second, much more prolific spell.
He scored 14 goals in 23 League One appearances, prompting Chelsea to sit up, take notice, and let him have a crack of the whip at a higher level.
Derby County granted Bamford exactly that, as they gained momentum under new boss Steve McClaren and reached the play-off final.
Signing for his childhood club’s bitter rivals was never going to be an easy thing to stomach, but Bamford’s professionalism and determination to prove himself helped the acclimatisation, even if he does credit a hallowed helping hand.
He spoke to the The Guardian last year about he sudden death of Nigel Doughty, former Forest chairman and Bamford’s godfather:
I just couldn’t believe it. I’m not religious. Before the game I had my head down and I was talking not to God but to Nigel. I said ‘I’m sorry that I came to Derby, but just help me.’
Because I scored, that was why I pointed to the sky. I tried it the next game and I scored again, so I thought: ‘Bloody hell, he’s feeling generous.’ I ended up with five in seven.
Bamford finished the season with eight goals and a cruel playoff final defeat for Derby, his personal tally standing at 25 in all competitions for the season across both loans.
Returning to Chelsea in the summer, he was faced by Mourinho and confidently informed him that it was his intention to play for Chelsea.
The suggestion of having a bit part role as a third striker was mooted, but when Didier Drogba arrived for his second coming, Bamford knew another loan his short-term future. Not that he was bitter towards the Chelsea staff, telling The Mirror: “…you can’t really turn down Drogba, can you?”
While that may be true, at the grand old age of 37 it’s unlikely that Drogba will remain at Chelsea in a playing capacity past this season.
There has been a coy suggestion that Drogba could join the backroom staff, his return merely a stop gap until the likes of Bamford, and fellow youth prospects Dominic Solanke, Isaiah Brown and Islam Feruz are sufficiently readied to make the first team cut.
It goes without saying that all have immense potential, Mourinho specifically fingering Solanke and Brown as those aforementioned future England internationals, but Bamford is miles ahead of the rest in terms of development.
Yes, Solanke has scored a healthy amount of goals in all competitions at youth level, as well as making his Champions League debut earlier this season, but the very fact that Bamford has nearly three years worth of ‘men’s football’ gives him the gilt-edged advantage.
His physical development has improved since being in the Football League – wiry and lean at over six feet tall, yet understatedly strong, alongside excellent acceleration and pace to help his evenly favoured feet find the required finish.
Perhaps most respectable is his attitude, and it’s little wonder Mourinho has been keeping a close eye on his young prize. Intelligence, pragmatism and humility tinged with confidence ooze out of the 21-year-old, defying his still fledgling-like status in the game.
Take his view on the move to Chelsea for example, just five days after scoring four goals against Southampton in the FA Youth Cup:
I got a lot of abuse, especially on Twitter, saying: ‘You’re going for the money’. But not many people know what happened at Forest at the end.
Because I was in the last year of my contract there was a lot of pressure for me to sign another one. My argument always was: ‘You’ve got to show me a development path in order for me to stay.’ Forest told me I was better than the strikers they had but because they needed to put them in the shop window, I was eighth out of eight in line to play.
At Chelsea Jimmy Fraser showed me the plans they had for me. Once I had listened to that and I actually believed it – that was the main thing, for me to believe it – I decided Chelsea was where I wanted to be.
Clearly, Bamford is of sound enough mind to understand his own value without having delusions of grandeur.
Here was an opportunity, and a large one at that, which may not have presented itself again, and even in his premature career Bamford knew Chelsea might not have been the end-game, his one and only club, but it was a chance to be grabbed with both hands.
That plan outlined by the head of youth recruitment signified a huge change in Chelsea’s transfer policy, before FFP was in full swing or Mourinho had returned to the Bridge.
The plan was to pump more scouting, more funds and more research into youth development, so as to foster the next group of core players as the dawn fell on the likes of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole.
It might take neutrals by surprise, but Chelsea’s dealings in both summer 2014 and winter 2015 windows leaves them with a profit of just over £16m.
The purchases of the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa and Juan Cuadrado amongst others were offset by the large sales of assets in David Luiz, Romelu Lukaku and Andre Schurrle.
So while the club has signed some grand players, the large fees paid for their players has covered that damage and kept them within UEFA’s fiscal limitations, allowing funding to extending scouting ranges and networks.
So the question begs: can Patrick Bamford actually cut it in the Chelsea first team?
His first full season in the Championship very much suggests he can, scoring 15 in 31 appearances for promotion hopefuls Middlesborough so far, a record not to be scoffed at for a player plying his trade in League One last year, and in the youth leagues the year before.
He’s also netted against Sunderland, Liverpool and Manchester City in various cup ties, so is no stranger to Premier League defences.
The man in charge at ‘Boro, Aitor Karanka was Mourinho’s assistant during his spell managing Real Madrid, so there’s history between the two.
It’s known that they converse regularly about a variety of topics, including the form and future of Bamford, with the Portuguese keen on regular updates from his old pal.
Following rumours around his long term future at the Blues, Bamford said:
I have discussed my career path with Jose on many occasions and am very happy with it. Everyone’s aim is for me to continue to develop as a player under Jose’s supervision and to have a long and successful career at Chelsea.
While his development very much lies in the hands of the Special One, the player himself is doing his chances no harm at Middlesborough.
Two tidy finishes in a recent victory over Ipswich were particularly nice, and his path seems to be clearing at the Bridge, with an aging Drogba’s contract expiring in the summer and Loic Remy struggling for game time.
Bamford’s maturity also speaks volume over his readiness to make the jump from the top of the Championship to the summit of the Premier League next season.
In contrast, Islam Feruz – another touted star – has seen a potential loan move to Cardiff rejected and a sealed loan deal to Blackpool terminated due to off-field attitude problems.
There’s no doubt that Bamford could, and should excel at Chelsea. Next season could be a little early, but who’s to reject him that chance?
If he continues to perform for Middlesborough, their likely return to the Premier League could offer him a chance at a top-flight loan there again if Mourinho is keen to see him make a second step-up in leagues in two years before joining the Chelsea first team.
Either way, if you earn yourself the nickname Bamfordinho, you must be doing something right.