Nathan Ake and Jordon Ibe offer glimpse of the future
Some clubs like to debut their new kit in the final game of the season - but others prefer to unveil the stand-out performers from their esteemed academies.
Chelsea and Liverpool both took the opportunity to end the 2012/13 campaign with debut senior starts for Nathan Aké and Jordon Ibe. Both were acquired as promising 16-year-olds and refined before progressing to the fringes of their respective senior sides.
Ake certainly benefitted from the interim appointment of Rafael Benitez, who on occasion utilised the versatile Dutchman during Chelsea’s convoluted campaign. He made his Premier League debut on Boxing Day, as a late sub against Norwich Cit,y and his first start for the club followed in February in the FA Cup against Middlebrough.
The youngster was drafted into central midfield for a crucial Europa League quarter-final in Russia, performing admirably in a 3-2 loss against Rubin Kazan as Chelsea progressed on aggregate. He replaced the similarly coiffed David Luiz in the 3-1 semi-final win against FC Basel, but was an unused substitute for the final. After playing the whole of Chelsea’s final game of the season, a 2-1 away win at Everton, he was handed the club’s Young Player of the Year award.
Ake’s signing proved controversial - Feyenoord’s sporting director at the time, Leo Beenhakker, was furious at Chelsea’s successful pursuit. “The Premier League spoil the market with their behaviour,” blasted the former Real Madrid and Netherlands boss. “Other clubs in Europe don’t behave like this, but the English sides just don’t care.”
There proved nothing untoward with Chelsea’s approach but Feyenoord were understandably aggrieved after losing another of their finest academy prospects for a nominal sum. Chelsea had already signed Patrick van Aanholt, Jeffrey Bruma, Fabio Borini, Jacopo Sala and Gael Kakuta in similar circumstances at this stage, with Lens accusing the Blues of tapping up the latter. A transfer ban ensued but the sanction was later overturned. Here there was no suggestion of an illegal approach.
At international level, he has since starred for the Netherlands' Under-19s and was part of the squad which won the UEFA European Under-17 Championships in both 2011 and 2012.
Bermondsey-born Ibe, meanwhile, joined Wycombe Wanderers at 12 after his release from Charlton Athletic's academy. He became their youngest first-team player for three decades (15 years and 244 days) when he came off the bench in extra-time during a League Cup win against Colchester in August 2011.
That October, on his first league start, he became Wycombe’s youngest-ever goalscorer against Sheffield Wednesday. The goal was impressive, attracting attention not only due to his age but because he was also booked for celebrating with his family in the crowd.
Two months later he signed a pre-contract agreement with Liverpool after just 11 appearances at Adams Park.
Last season, his debut campaign, was spent mostly in the club's youth set-up, though a brace in an FA Youth Cup win against Leeds United in February did earn him a call-up to Brendan Rodger's first-team squad at Southampton a few weeks later.
It took until the final game of the season against QPR to make his debut but it was almost certainly worth it for the 17-year-old, who laid on sn assist for the only goal of the game, jinking in from the left to supply Philippe Coutinho for a final-day victory. Naturally a beaming Rodgers was delighted (if there's any other state for the former Swanse chief). "I thought he did very well," said the Reds boss. "It's not easy playing at Anfield in his first game here but as the game went on he became better and better. He's got real potential and you can see he's a footballer. He linked up very well with young Coutinho."
Liverpool are becoming renowned for blooding young talent and Ibe will be looking to emulate the recent progress of Andre Wisdom, Suso and Raheem Sterling. Off-field misdemeanours aside it was a successful campaign for the latter, who won his first senior England cap against Sweden in November before being used more sparingly by Rodgers as the season wore.
Ibe has already represented England at Under-18 level, while a step up to the Under-19s and beyond is surely the aim for this season. After scoring in Liverpool's pre-season win over Preston there's surely more to come where Rodgers' first team is concerned.
Ake, meanwhile, is tasked with impressing the returning Jose Mourinho, whose reluctance to trust young talent in the past is seemingly otherwise this time around. That said, having seen Kevin De Bruyne return from a hugely succesful loan spell at Werder Bremen it's entirely possible Ake could enjoy a similar experience.
This duo have tasted the big time - but the rest is now up to them.
Scott Johnson's book The Blues Are Up, about Cardiff's promotion, is out now.