The third weekend in February, back in 2009, proved a significant one in Premier League goalkeeping history. After nearly four months, fourteen games, and a mind boggling 1,334 minutes, Roque Santa Cruz skipped around a faltering Ferdinand and one useless PIG and rolled the ball into the empty Old Trafford net. It was the first goal United had conceded in the Premier League since Samir Nasri had put them to the sword in early November at the Emirates. Trust Kuszczak to ruin all of van der Sar’s good work. Pole in Goal for any of you wondering.
United went on to win the game 2-1, Ronaldo securing another home win en route to three in a row.
Ahhhh, halcyon days indeed.
Twenty four hours later, another significant goalkeeping milestone was taking place for a sixteen year old boy in a small Croatian town, close to the Slovenian border. Matej Delač had a dream debut. Inter Zaprešić won the game 1-0, beating NK Zagreb, their near neighbours from the capital. The hero was their young goalkeeper, saving a penalty in the dying throws of the encounter to ensure victory. He would play fifteen games for Inter before the end of that season. It wasn’t long before Europe’s bigger clubs sat up and took notice.
That summer, Benfica looked in pole position to secure the signature of the young shot stopper, but after negotiations broke down, Chelsea would swoop. Delač penned a five year deal with the Blues, but would stay in Croatia to continue his development whilst Frank Arnesen kept his eye on the talent from afar. After a final season with Inter, Chelsea sent Delač on a well trodden path. Days after his eighteenth birthday, he was farmed out to Vitesse, Chelsea’s feeder team in the Netherlands and de facto kindergarten for a ream of Chelsea youngsters over the last decade.
And so it began. The first of ten loan moves in seven years. The starlet at sixteen who had dreams of Premier League football and the higher echelons of the European game has amassed a grand total of zero appearances for the team he put to pen to paper with, coming on nine years ago this September – oh and again in July 2014 and just one more time, two years later.
Delač did see some European football, alright. Although he didn’t get a single minute as an eighteen year old in the Eredivisie, he would go on to see action in the Czech Republic, in Portugal, back to his boyhood club for half a season as 2012-13 wound down in Croatia, before hot footing it to Serbia, Bosnia, France and Belgium over the past four and a half years.
Somewhere, in the midst of all this chaos, he hilariously became Chelsea’s longest serving player – when John Terry left for Aston Villa this past summer. And so, at still a youthful twenty five years of age, Matej finds himself back at Cobham. Not able to play for the first team due to work permit issues, that have played a part in the stunting of his Chelsea career, yes, he has announced that he will call time on his career in London (Ha!) at the end of this season.
This extraordinary situation must be the most pertinent example of a strategy deployed by the club over the past decade. The media have given it a chillingly crass title – ‘stockpiling’.
So how does it work?
Chelsea’s vast scouting system identify a talented youngster – the younger the better – both in the UK, but more often abroad, and secure his signature, welcoming them into the bosom of the club’s illustrious academy. This is usually achieved at a relatively nominal fee. From there, they will compete with the swathes of young men around them, most of them in the first instance to achieve a loan move away. Some will be sold on relatively early, some will sign contact extensions. Seemingly none will ever stand a realistic chance of breaking into the first team. None have yet. You see the trick is to sell them on at the height of their value. And this occurs again and again and again.
Let’s look at some notable examples.
On the final day of the January transfer window in 2012, the Kings Road outfit signed Patrick Bamford, an 18 year old striker showing plenty of promise at Nottingham Forest. After six loan moves in five years, Bamford’s career had seemed to stagnate, he hadn’t been able to register one league goal at any of his final three foster clubs, Palace, Norwich and Burnley. It was time to cash in. Bamford was sold to Middlesbrough just shy of celebrating his fifth anniversary at Chelsea for a £4.5 million profit. He made zero Chelsea appearances in the Premier League.
Christian Atsu signed for Chelsea on September 1st, 2013 and was immediately shipped off to Vitesse. Four years and five loans later, Newcastle eventually exercised a right-to-buy option on Atsu landing Chelsea a cool £3 million profit on their Ghanaian acquisition. He made zero Chelsea appearances in the Premier League.
Eden Hazard has been a shining light for Chelsea since his move from Lille in the summer of 2012. Less is known about his younger brother Thorgan who Chelsea brought along for the ride. Having appeared in a Chelsea shirt only the once, in an under 21 game against Man City, twenty four days after he signed, he was immediately sent back to Belgium, where he would spend two seasons with Zulte Waragem, who would ensure his continued development. He returned for pre-season training at the start of July 2014 but no sooner had he laced up his boots before he was off again – this time to Borussia Mönchengladbach in Germany, where he would spend one season on loan before signing permanently in February 2015. Chelsea earned £6 million off that transfer – a £5.5 million profit. He made zero Chelsea appearances in the Premier League.
There are countless others to choose from – Bertrand Traoré, Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Aké, Dominic Solanke – all sold for significant fees without really been given a fair crack at the whip.
They have ballsed up at times too. They sold Kevin de Bruyne to Wolfsburg for a £10m profit in 2014, only two years after acquiring him from Genk as a 20 year old. De Bruyne must, now, surely be worth ten times the £18 million they received for him. They sold Mohammed Salah, of course, to Roma, for a profit of only £1 million after a frustrating season and a half which saw him loaned to Fiorentina, before signing permanently for I Giallorossi. Salah and De Bruyne are currently both at the head of the betting for Premier League Player of the Year for the 2017-18 season, having returned to England with Man City and Liverpool respectively. Chelsea have also had to eat humble pie on other occasions – notably in the buying, selling and re-purchase of Nemanja Matić, and again in their prolonged pursuit of another former player in Romelu Lukaku.
They currently have twenty eight senior players out on loan to other clubs, including the likes of Marco van Ginkel, plucked from feeder club Vitesse at twenty and already a Dutch international, he has a grand total of two Chelsea appearances to his name, the last coming in 2013. Others include Tomáš Kalas, the Czech international defender who has been under contract since 2010, Lucas Piazon, the former Brazilian youth international who has been under contract since 2012, and Danilo Pantić, a Serbian youth player they scooped up in 2015 at the tender age of eighteen, who has already had three season long loans under his belt.
No-one can deny the feasibility of ‘stockpiling’ as a business model. Chelsea Football Club have secured tens of millions of pounds worth of profit, using third parties to develop their Chelsea branded players, before sending them on their way permanently and pocketing what is usually a healthy gain. But what is a fantastic business model amounts to nothing short of exploitation in the sense of footballing welfare. These young men, many not even adults when they smile through adolescent teeth as they sign their contracts, are catapulted all over Europe before their arse barely hits the ground at Heathrow. Some have managed to come out the other side unscathed. But how many careers have suffered like that of Matej Delač – how many players have been left asking “What If?”.
I wish Matej Delač all the best in his future endeavours, and hope that he can reignite the spark that Chelsea extinguished almost nine years ago. What are the chances he is afforded a token testimonial as way of thanks for his service?
Football trafficking is alive and well and the culprits can be found in London, SW3.