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Michael Emenalo: ‘I had to fight to keep Chelsea’s academy from closing’

8 October 2019

Michael Emenalo never tired of defending Chelsea’s academy. Not that owner Roman Abramovich ever needed much convincing, but the doubts and the pressure did not always come from the outside.

Abramovich, Emenalo is sure, will be delighting in Frank Lampard’s youth revolution with Chelsea sitting fifth in the Premier League and the team full of academy graduates playing the domineering style of football the Russian billionaire favours.

Three of those graduates, Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori, are in Gareth Southgate’s latest England squad. And that number could rise to at least five before next summer’s European Championships with Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek returning to fitness.

But, in his first extended interview since leaving Chelsea in November 2017, former technical director Emenalo has revealed how Abramovich refused to abandon the academy while some were questioning whether or not it would ever pay off.

During his 10 years at the club, which took in the 2012 Champions League success and three Premier League title wins, Emanalo’s most important piece of work may have been to argue why one former manager was wrong to suggest Abramovich should scale back his investment in the academy.

“I defended the academy when there was pressure and doubt and pessimism,” said Emenalo. “There was a time when there was a clamour to do more and a manager came in to make a presentation to say the academy was not necessary. The argument was it takes too long, we don’t have time, we should use it to make some money here and there, and that the owner should stop pumping money into it because it seemed like a waste.

“But that wasn’t my idea and I had to fight against it. This is where I am very, very proud of the owner Roman Abramovich because of the trust he had in me and the willingness to listen to me and give the academy time. He would not abandon it. He believed in it and in me, and I can’t thank him enough for that.”

Emenalo is taking a break from football before considering his next project after leaving Monaco. He insists there is no sense of regret over missing Chelsea’s mass graduation party and is proud that the hard work of his former colleagues is finally coming to fruition.

“When you implement a policy, you expect it to work,” said Emenalo. “But sometimes the timing or how it is going to work is not so sure. What’s happened with these boys, you can only feel pride. Not just for the boys, but I’m thankful for the effort of a lot of people – coaches and staff, people at the academy, the first-team scouting and loan departments, secretaries, all these people who have had a lot of input into all of these boys succeeding.

“Of course, you always need some luck and that luck has come with the transfer ban and with the appointment of someone like Frank and his assistants, Jody Morris and Joe Edwards. That’s what you need. It doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing from here, it just shows that it is possible.”

Emenalo was given a mandate to overhaul the academy after being promoted to technical director in 2010 and attempted to convince Abramovich that it was possible to put together a first-team squad of which at least 60 per cent of the players were homegrown.

“The policy was always to have the players grow together and to grow the culture,” said Emenalo. “You saw it at Barcelona with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. You get a real culture of boys who understand and care about the club. Look at the celebration at Southampton. The first two who arrived to Tammy were Mount and Hudson-Odoi. Then when Mount scored, it was Tammy and Hudson-Odoi. Tomori couldn’t get up the pitch fast enough! You build a really, really wonderful football culture. A Chelsea culture and this is where identities come from and these guys will play and care for this club for years and years and years to come. It’s amazing what is unfolding.”

By Matt Law. This piece first appeared in the Telegraph.

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