Once a player with Swindon Town and Walsall, among other clubs, Adi Viveash is now the Chelsea U21 manager. He joined the club’s academy in 2008 after a spell as Cirencester Town manager and served as the U18 manager from 2011 to 2014. Richard Laverty asked spoke to him about the challenges of top level youth management.
Adi, How much did your playing career have an influence on what you do now?
When I was 25 and playing at Walsall, there tended to be quite a few younger players at the club. I found it quite easy to help them as a more experienced player and that’s when I first thought about going into coaching once I’d finished playing. Then when I was at Reading, and at Swindon for the second time when I was 34, I did some sessions with the youth teams and I found it quite natural. I never thought I’d be working at the club I’m working at now, but I’ve worked very hard to get as qualified as I am and the club have seen it fit to promote me through the system over the years. It’s been an incredible journey but a really hard one.
Was it always about coaching the youth teams then?
I had a great 18 months at Cirencester Town at the end of my career. It was my last involvement in playing football and I enjoyed it there. It was away from the pressure and it was a chance to play for a bit of fun, if you like. I used it as a chance to get my badges and eventually I took over as manager.
I used that as development for myself, we had a very young team and we were struggling playing in a men’s league. But I was able to get my ideas across, to implement sessions that I wanted to look at and try out things I wouldn’t have had the chance to elsewhere. But sometimes you get opportunities that are too good to turn down. I went from that to coaching eleven year olds at Chelsea and things have progressed over the last seven or eight years. It wasn’t necessarily about coaching younger players; it was about the opportunity in front of me which was too good to turn down.
You were promoted to U21 manager in 2014, what have been the main differences you’ve noticed since leaving the U18 side?
The main difference is that the U18s is a much more settled programme and that makes it a bit easier to do your job. You work from Monday to Friday and play a game on the Saturday, you can strategically work out what you’re going to do, but in the U21s you can play any day of the week and you don’t even play every week because you only have 22 league games.
You’re also working closer to the first team so you’re preparing players for the next stage of their development, which at our club is usually a loan move away. That has its challenges because you’ve got to work out if you’re pitching players for League 2, the Championship or whether you’re sending them abroad. Your sessions can be disrupted, rightly so, if the first team need your players so the roles are very different, even more so than I thought, if I’m honest.
The lack of games is very difficult, we can go three weeks without a match, so to get them ready physically and mentally for each game is quite a challenge. But it’s also very enjoyable, the U18s were a lot easier to manage, but it is a very enjoyable job.
Is it a case of needing more games then?
The quality of the games we’ve played is definitely better; the problem is that there aren’t enough. They’ve added international tournaments, but that only puts you up to 25-30 if you do okay in the cups. For our better players who still play in the U19s Champions League and the Youth Cup, they’ll be playing 50 games a season so there’s a massive void between the two levels.
The only thing you can do is create more games at U21 level, but then the worry is a lack of quality. Do you need to bring foreign opposition in, like a Rangers or a Celtic? The level needs to stay high but you need the ones who are too old to play in the U19s Champions League playing more. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been playing international games, but you’ll find differences in opinion right across the U21 programme. Some play men’s teams and travel abroad which is something we’ve looked into doing at Chelsea. We can’t have a programme that’s right if we’re not playing for three weeks, that’s not right at all. That’s not preparing players for the next level.
B teams in the Football League has been mentioned, would that be the answer?
I’ve heard about it and I think it works brilliantly in certain situations. We played Benfica a few weeks ago and you can see that they play in a men’s league and play at least once a week. The only way it would work for Chelsea is to have the youth players coming through into the B team, that would stop them going out on loan around Europe. Their development would continue here at a high level of football on a regular basis. But I just can’t see it happening, rightly so, as the league teams are so opposed to it. My background is in the Football League and there are teams there fighting for their lives. You still want the Football League to keep its history, but there has to be some sort of change at U21 level if you want to create more successful English players.
Given that so many players do end up away from Chelsea, what are your motivations in this job?
To say you’re preparing every player to play for Chelsea wouldn’t be right, because it isn’t the case. I do feel there are players here who can get through to the first team. The [Dominic] Solanke’s, the [Andreas] Christensen’s, the [Lewis] Baker’s, the [Jeremie] Boga’s have gone on loan but I believe they’ll come back and be Chelsea players in the future.
But my job is to obviously make them better footballers and better people, that’s a big part of what we do. To prepare them to play for Chelsea is number one but you also have to prepare them for professional football wherever it may be. I still believe we are getting players who are good enough, but that’s not down to me, it’s down to the manager and people at the top of the club.
We’re very proud of where Ruben [Loftus-Cheek] is right now and the part we’ve played in his development. He’s a role model for the players we work with at the moment and there are definitely some in our group who believe they can do what he’s done and go into the first team without a loan. We shouldn’t discourage that, we need to be positive with them, but I’m also very honest with all the players we work with. we need to be honest about what level we’re pitching them at but they’re also an honest bunch of kids with us too.
They would know if they need a couple of years from here or whether they can go straight through, each player’s development path is very different and we’ve always adopted that thinking here. Last year was definitely the best group of players we’ve had here, they won a highly regarded competition, they looked the best team and they were the best team. Christensen has gone to play for a Champions League team, Baker is in Holland, Boga is in France, so they do have different paths, but ultimately it’s down to one man who chooses who goes in the first team.
Is it as much about an education now given how the game has changed for young players?
Yeah, definitely. To be fair to Neil Bath, the Head of Academy at Chelsea, this is a ten-year programme and he’s into his tenth year now. He set the foundations a decade ago, there’s a great support system for the players off the pitch and that is vital.
The game has changed, the players have changed. You have to keep them hungry and motivated because you do hear about the ‘too much, too soon’ label but the only people who can change that tag are the players themselves. We do tremendous off the pitch work with a lot of people involved, liaison people who make sure their money is being invested in the right places, they take care of where they live and more importantly how they conduct themselves.
You want them to develop as people. Some of the best responses I’ve had are from players who aren’t even in the game now, people who moved into coaching who are thankful for the focus we gave them for their day-to-day lives. Some have gone off to college or working in normal jobs away from football. Those letters of thanks are as important as the ones we get from players.
Academies tend to look towards cheaper foreign players who may even be better players, how much is that affecting our national team?
The national team definitely is suffering from the lack of players. There is a lack of English players in the Premier League and even now in the Championship. When I first came to Chelsea the basis was about foreign players, now it’s around 85-90% English players in the academy. You always want to add the top foreign players but the national team is another major problem area. The fact is that players can’t get through.
Until you create a rule about a certain amount of players in the starting eleven or you follow the lead of a country like Germany who accepted a semi-final wasn’t a success, we’re still going to have this conversation because it is a major problem here. The national team will continue to suffer but any change here will be good for the clubs too, the English players coming through will get more chances. The rule needs to change for clubs and the home-grown players, not just the national team. For me it’s club first. The national team will benefit because Roy Hodgson will have more players to choose from.
For the players who are still at Chelsea, how much of a boost is it to see, not just what Ruben has done, but also what the likes of Dele Alli, Joe Gomez and Jesse Lingard are doing?
To see Ruben in our first team is powerful because it motivates everyone else in our U21 team. To see Andreas Christensen marking Sergio Aguero in the Champions League is motivation for them. It shows that in three months you can go from playing in the youth tournaments to the real thing. They both lifted the international trophy with us in Nyon last year and now they’re both playing in the Champions League proper.
They have friends at other clubs. You mentioned Dele Alli, who they see playing first team football, but the development path at Tottenham is very different to here and we have to accept that. But all of them send out a powerful message to our players and I think they use that as motivation, definitely the ones who are closest to making that next step. It’s a young group now because a few have now made that step up or gone on loan so a lot of the group need a few years of U21 football before they’re ready for their next move.
So who can be the next big thing at Chelsea?
I’m not going to name names but there are a couple we have high hopes for. There are even a couple in the 18s we think have a big future already, but I’m really looking at someone like Dominic Solanke to come back and play a big part in the first team next season. Some only need one year away and I personally believe he’s one of them.
The other boys just have to keep working hard. They get chances to train with the first team on a lot of occasions and I hope they impress the manager. We’ve got a European Championship next summer which means our first team squad will be decimated. A lot of our players will go on the pre-season tour and hopefully show what they can do. That’s what Dominic did and he got a chance to play in the Champions League at just 16, we do have high hopes for a few of the players here though, definitely.
You can follow Richard Laverty on Twitter (@richjlaverty)