Some three and half years ago, in the bucolic surrounds of their Cobham training site, Chelsea’s Under 19s took on Ajax for a place in the semi-finals of the Uefa Youth League.
The contest finished in a narrow 1-0 win for the hosts, who went on to lift the trophy for the second season in succession, confirming the high reputation of the Chelsea academy.
Ajax’s fame as a hothouse would barely be dented by that setback. The Dutch club has been cultivating world-class footballers for the best part of half a century, its academy a template for others to mimic.
What few elite clubs have managed, though, is as smooth a bridge from apprenticeship to first team. It is part of the Ajax landscape, and signposted by the short walk from the well-appointed Toekomst campus, where the up-and-comings practice, to the Amsterdam ArenA, where Chelsea will play Ajax in the Champions League on Wednesday night.
To look back at that Cobham match of March 2016 is to be struck by the fast-tracked progress of some of Ajax’s juniors. Not much more than a year after playing that Uefa Youth League tie, Matthijs de Ligt, now of Juventus, Justin Kluivert, now of Roma, and midfielder Donny van Beek were taking part in the 2017 Europa League final.
Meanwhile, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori, centre-forward and centre-back respectively for the 2016 Chelsea under-19 side, followed up their celebrations of the Uefa Youth League title by going out on loan, to second-tier Bristol City and Brighton & Hove Albion, first chapters in what is the standard loan-after-loan storyline for the best graduates of the Chelsea nursery.
Over the years, the Cobham conveyor-belt has produced some exceptional talent, but what comes back to Chelsea is far more often a handy transfer fee than a grown-up footballer for whom Stamford Bridge can sing, loud and proud, "He’s one of our own".
Circumstances changed abruptly this summer when a Fifa sanction, imposed because Chelsea were found to have breached regulations on the signings of foreign teenagers - the Cobham academy scouts widely - meant no new recruits could be registered. Opportunity, then, for the homegrowns, recalled from their various loans, Abraham, 22, Tomori, 21, and Mason Mount, 20, above all.
That trio, who have all now been called up by the England national squad, are probably enjoying their sudden promotions too vividly to look in envy at, say, Van de Beek.
But he has had quite a head start on them. While Abraham, Tomori and Mount play Matchday 3 of their debut Champions League campaign, Van de Beek, 22, will be competing in his 40th match in a major European club competition. He scored in Ajax's cliffhanging Champions League semi-final at Tottenham Hotspur in May.
For one distinguished former coach of both Ajax and Chelsea, that tells its own story. Henk ten Cate, the former Al Jazira and Al Wahda manager who in 2007 gave up the top job at Ajax to help guide Chelsea to the club’s first ever Champions League final, says: “In some ways, Ajax and Chelsea have the same basic idea: they put a lot of effort and money into their academies. The big difference is how they build up those players for the first-team.
“Chelsea have not, until now, given the players time to build their confidence there; with Ajax, it’s part of the philosophy and has been for generations. If, at Ajax, you don’t have young players coming through and playing in a certain ‘Ajax way' the crowd will not accept it.
"At Chelsea, the pressure for results at a club that has been at the top of English football for really only the last 20 years, and is in a much tougher league than Holland’s, makes it harder to give young players their chance.”
Chelsea players take part in training before the Ajax match
He contrasts his own experience: at Ajax, the academy would be a principal resource, its graduates synchronised to the playing style of the first-team. At Chelsea what happened at the academy felt somehow removed, disengaged.
For Ten Cate, it seems startling that Wednesday night’s Chelsea line-up might include as many homegrown players as Ajax field. He is in no doubt they are expertly guided.
“It’s good for this Chelsea to have a young manager, in Frank Lampard,” says Ten Cate, who was close to Lampard when he was a dynamic Chelsea midfielder. “He’s the right person, a guy who lives football. As a player he would want to discuss games in detail.”
Lampard might choose to detail to his tyros how youth can thrive in the Champions League. He can cite the compelling example of Ajax, who last season knocked out Real Madrid and Juventus on their way to losing to Spurs only in the last minute of their semi. There is no better inspiration for the kids from Cobham.