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Chelsea mailbag: Willian and Kepa’s futures, Pjanic and the Kante issue



You asked for a Chelsea mailbag, so here it is. The season is likely to be back in just a few weeks and there is lots of talk about at Stamford Bridge.

Here, I’ve answered a selection of the best of your questions. If I’ve not got to yours, don’t worry — there will be a Q&A soon and we’ll do another mailbag in the not too distant future.

Could you tell us about the situation between Kepa and Lampard? Is everything OK now? Does he match Chelsea’s level? — Vlad P

Hi Vlad. Lampard was impressed by Kepa’s response to losing his place and the way he performed when he got back into the team, doing plenty to earn the clean sheet he got in that 2-0 win against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge immediately prior to the pandemic shutdown.

He still has a long way to go to even come close to justifying the massive fee Chelsea paid for him but selling him wasn’t really a viable option before COVID-19 froze football (how many elite clubs are even looking for a starting goalkeeper, let alone prepared to pay huge money for one?).

Now, with so many approaching the next transfer window with caution, it’s even less likely that Chelsea would be able to get value for him. The pragmatic choice in the short term is to keep working with him and hope he can make significant improvement. At 25, that’s still very possible.

Do you think the extensions for Caballero and Giroud are merely precautionary to cover the club during this uncertain time, or do you believe they’ll be in the squad for next season? — Jack W

Hi Jack. It’s too soon to say for certain. What the one-year extensions do is give everyone involved a bit of security. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Giroud still leaving if Chelsea decide to invest heavily in new attacking options in the next transfer window but he’s a capable safety net if they don’t. I’d lean more towards Caballero staying as I don’t think signing another back-up goalkeeper will be a priority for the club in any case.

Should football return in the next month, will we be looking at a fully-fit Chelsea squad for Frank to pick from? — Ted B

Hi Ted. Unless there are fresh injuries in the next few weeks, I think so. Christian Pulisic had just returned to full fitness when football was suspended and both Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are training with the rest of the squad now. N’Golo Kante is in good physical condition too, though his availability will be determined by how he feels about playing during this pandemic. Lampard should have more players to pick from than at any stage this season.

I saw in your recent article about Chelsea’s best outgoings since 2000 that a handy chunk of money is coming in from the Morata sale. Coupling that with the recent transfer window restrictions at Chelsea which have finally been lifted, do we reckon there’ll be some considerable incomings this summer at Stamford Bridge? — Qahir B

Hi Qahir. Chelsea’s intention before COVID-19 hit was to significantly strengthen the squad in the next window. Now, the picture is less clear. Most clubs are waiting to find out if they can even get their seasons finished first and no one really knows yet what the transfer market will look like. It’s possible that clubs with desirable players might be under financial pressure to sell, which would create opportunities for Chelsea and their rivals.

Clubs are also waiting to find out whether or not UEFA will relax or even suspend Financial Fair Play (FFP) for a period in response to all of this. That will have a big impact on what Chelsea do.

I’m sorry I can’t be more definitive but there are too many unknowns right now. What is clear is that, because of Roman Abramovich’s backing, Chelsea are in a stronger position than most clubs to get through this unprecedented crisis — and even capitalise on any opportunities created by it.

Marina has done decently when it comes to player sales. However, our player acquisition record over the years has been terrible. Apart from Kante, none of the transfers have worked out. Keeping this in mind, do you think Chelsea would be wise to get someone like Luis Campos to the bridge? — Raghav B

Hi Raghav. I don’t agree that Chelsea’s recruitment in recent years has been terrible (aside from the disastrous summer of 2017 when Alvaro Morata, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta came in). Lille sporting director Luis Campos has been linked to Chelsea in the past but from what I’m told the club, aren’t looking to appoint an external sporting/technical director. They’re happy with the recruitment structure as it is and want to give Petr Cech room to assume greater responsibility as he grows in experience.

Is there any chance of a Willian contract renewal? And how much have Tammy Abraham’s talks progressed as it’s been on the works for more than a while now — Hari Shankar L

Hi Hari. As I wrote on Friday, talks with Willian over a new contract broke down several months ago and there has been no significant dialogue since. He wants a three-year deal, Chelsea don’t want to give him one, and it doesn’t look like either side is prepared to budge enough for a compromise to happen.

I haven’t heard about any significant progress on Abraham’s new deal. He was waiting to see if Euro 2020 might give him greater leverage, though clearly that won’t happen this summer now. I’m sure it will be revisited sooner rather than later and I’d still be surprised if it doesn’t get done eventually but what Chelsea do in terms of attacking signings in the next transfer window will tell us a lot.

Obviously most transfer rumours are to be taken with a grain of salt but what do you make of us continuing to be linked with midfielders (Pjanic etc). We seem to have too many players for those positions as it is – Kante, Kovacic, Jorginho, Barkley, Loftus-Cheek, Mount, Gilmour, Gallagher/Anjorin? How do you see our midfield shaping up next season – do you think Gilmour & Gallagher will be in the mix? Surely, if we sign a midfielder, it needs to be a dedicated CDM? — Vinayak N

Hi Vinayak. My impression is that the Pjanic noises are coming more from the Juventus side — they are very keen to offload his wages and recoup some money for him. I don’t think Chelsea need to buy any midfielders in the next transfer window, even if (as I suspect) Gallagher and Anjorin spend next season on loan. Gilmour will be in the mix — partly because Lampard loves him but mainly because he’s ready to be.

I am a big fan of Mason Mount and I know Frank is too. Do you see Mount being Chelsea’s main man for a decade? Or do you believe is he only going to play for Chelsea for as long as Frank is? — Shea D

Hi Shea. I think Mount will continue to be a significant part of Chelsea’s plans in the coming years, regardless of whether or not Lampard is in charge. Every minute he’s played this season he’s earned — even on his less eye-catching days, his work ethic and willingness to do the little things to help the team are really impressive. That, combined with his tactical intelligence and versatility, mean he would be valued by pretty much any manager in the world.

Hi Liam, how much do you think Kante not going to training affect his performance and likelihood to start matches? — Caspar B

Hi Caspar. Kante won’t be considered for selection unless he’s training — he simply won’t be physically ready to play. His fears are perfectly understandable and anything other than supporting his stance would be a PR disaster for the club but COVID-19 is likely to be a danger for the foreseeable future. In the long term, having the highest-paid player in the squad sitting out while healthy isn’t a tenable situation.

With Chelsea’s youth being given a chance, is the club going to shift their focus to signing more experienced/established players or will they continue to target youth? — Alexander K

Hi Alexander. We saw with Hakim Ziyech that Lampard is looking for players capable of making an immediate impact (he’ll be 27 by the time he plays his first Premier League game) but I think that will continue to be balanced with Chelsea’s broader policy of not committing to players who have minimal resale value. The target age bracket is likely to be 23 to 28, which fits with what the club has been doing in the transfer market for much of the last decade.

Hi Liam, how serious is Chelsea’s interest in signing Achraf Hakimi? He is the second-best right-back, if not the best but is he as good on the left side as he is on the right? Will he accept playing at left-back? – Nihal S

Hi Nihal. Chelsea looked closely at Hakimi in the past but they aren’t pursuing him anymore. Reece James has seen to that!

Have you heard or believe Chelsea might add some experience in the backroom staff… perhaps someone like Steve Holland? He’s not going to be busy till the Euros considering the situation. If not then don’t you think Frank is lacking that experience in his staff? He might be badly exposed next season just like Andre Villas-Boas (in his first few months) – Shabeeh A

Hi Shabeeh. Everything I’ve heard suggests Lampard is happy with his current backroom staff and there isn’t really room for another assistant. Holland is still very highly regarded at Chelsea but he’s got a great job with Gareth Southgate right now. As for the experience factor, I think that only becomes an issue if (as with AVB) if the players don’t respect or believe in the manager. Neither are the case with Lampard and this dressing room.

Who is your favorite Chelsea player to interview? — Matthew N

Hi Matthew. That’s tough because I’ve enjoyed most of them! In the current squad, I’d probably go for Cesar Azpilicueta, who is just an all-round lovely man. One I’ve never done that I’d love to do is Diego Costa, if he ever agreed to speak English. He’s a glorious maniac.

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Tom Taiwo: Joining Chelsea wasn’t a bad decision. It was a sensible one



(TDarren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images, taken in 2008)

Tom Taiwo counts his regrets with one finger. “Orthotics,” he says, remembering the inserts Chelsea made for his boots after he broke his ankle in training. “I don’t think the club realised this but I chucked them in the bin. They hurt too much and I thought, ‘I’m not wearing these bloody things’. If I ever had a regret, that would be it.”

He paid for his quiet disposal of them with persistent back pain and Taiwo admits that he should have known what was good for him. He retired last year, a few months after his 29th birthday, having grown weary of managing “a couple of hamstring strains and a groin injury every season”. Given his time again, he would take the orthotics and grit his teeth. “I’d only have been using them for a couple of months,” he says.

He regrets that part of his career at Chelsea but he is not inclined to speak with repentance about the transfer that took him there. The only thing that rankles — or did for a while — was the narrative surrounding his exit from Leeds United and the attention it attracted; two academy players whom very few people had heard of becoming bitter, back-page news.

The names of Taiwo and Michael Woods are synonymous with Chelsea and synonymous with the squabble that earned them unwanted publicity in 2006. The dispute was sparked by them leaving Elland Road and ended with Chelsea paying Leeds £5 million to sign both players but the story went deeper than those two transfers alone, opening English eyes to the way academy recruitment was evolving. Taiwo and Woods made the headlines but Chelsea’s youth-team strategy was so much bigger than two teenagers; it was ambitious and it was aggressive, with serious money to back it up.

It didn’t work out for Taiwo at Stamford Bridge, or for Woods. Taiwo broke his ankle two days before his youth-team debut and Woods left without appearing in a league game. But Taiwo is happy and content, with a job in scouting and two kids to keep him busy. No regrets. Apart from the orthotics.

In any academy and any age group, there are footballers who stand out instantly. “You always get three or four who are technically outstanding but I was never one of those,” Taiwo says. But from front to back, Leeds rated the cohort of which he was a crucial part. Taiwo was a ballsy defensive midfielder. Woods could play box-to-box, a “Steven Gerrard-type”, as his former coach Greg Abbott says. The squad included Danny Rose and Fabian Delph, two future England internationals. Taiwo describes Woods as “Paul Scholes on steroids. I’d get an assist just by passing the ball five yards in front of me. He’d run the length of the field and stick it in the bottom corner.”

Taiwo needed constant convincing about his ability, even though others around him could see it. Leeds scouted him at Farsley Celtic and took him on trial twice. The first, when he was nine, ended with Taiwo coming away feeling badly out of his depth. The second, a year or so later, went better and ended with a chat with Lucas Radebe, who nipped over the road from Leeds’ training ground to the pitches where the matches were taking place, next to Wealstun Prison. The chance to meet Radebe warmed his heart.

“In that first trial, I was miles off it,” Taiwo says. “I didn’t play well or do myself justice but I was young and overawed, quite shy and lacking a bit of self-confidence. I’d have been fazed going into an academy at that stage. It would have been too daunting. We did routines with the quick-feet ladders and other boys would be going through them at breakneck speed. I’d be kicking them, messing them up. I used to say to my dad, ‘I hate those ladders!’

“After the second trial, which went well, the guy coaching us said, ‘I’ve got a treat for you all’. It was Lucas Radebe. I’m a quarter Nigerian and when he heard my surname he said, ‘Ah, so you’re African like me!’ It was an amazing experience just to speak to him. He was my hero and I wanted to be like him — composed and elegant, even though I was neither of those things. When I watched him I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s my idol’.”

Taiwo’s first berth was in the centre of defence but at 5ft 6.5in — “I always throw the half in there” — he could see that his height would count against him. Some of the coaches in the academy assured him that he had the poise and anticipation to play there but before long he acquired a midfield role. The Leeds side in which he played was flooded with flair and potential. Taiwo got his first boot deal from Nike at 15.

“That was massive, a little bit of recognition from outside the club,” he says. “Our team was amazing. We’d go to international tournaments with Ajax and Juventus and get to the finals of big competitions. In academy terms, you couldn’t have got better at that time.”

The general feeling, then and now, is that Taiwo and Woods genuinely were that good. If £5 million seemed like a staggering amount of compensation, they were justifiably sought after. “All Michael lacked was a little burst of pace,” says Abbott, who worked with them at Leeds. “Little Tom, he had a great understanding of the game. He was one of those who, if you didn’t know what you were on about, you’d look at him and ask, ‘What does he do?’ But he was excellent at taking up good positions, reading the game, finding space and playing the right passes.

“I made no secret of the fact that I didn’t think it was the right decision for them to go to Chelsea — but not because I didn’t think they had loads of quality.”

Leeds’ academy has resolutely survived the blows and cuts inflicted on it in the 16 years since the club were relegated from the Premier League. It continues to be one of the most productive systems in England and Leeds sells themselves to prospective youth-team signings with something they think many elite academies cannot offer: a clear pathway to the first team.

In the six years Taiwo spent at Thorp Arch, there were senior debuts for James Milner, Simon Walton, Matthew Kilgallon, Aaron Lennon and Scott Carson. The potential to break through was evident. What started to worry Taiwo was the state of the club itself.

“Growing up as a kid, all I’d wanted to do was play for Leeds United and be a professional footballer,” Taiwo says. “Everything I did was to allow me to play football. My mum and dad were sticklers for saying, ‘You don’t go to training unless you’ve done your homework and done it well’. They didn’t want me to flunk school but, really, I was working hard there so I could play football.”

His godmother suggested he become a doctor and take up the piano. “That wasn’t happening,” he says, laughing. “I can just about play a tune on the xylophone with the little one.”

The first half of 2006 was a watershed moment for Leeds. They lost in the Championship play-off final, a more pivotal tie than anyone realised. Fourteen years later, they have yet to come closer to rejoining the Premier League. Beneath club chairman Ken Bates was a financial minefield which would drag Leeds to the point of insolvency in 2007. Promotion in the play-off final might have cured a thousand ills. Defeat was catastrophic.

“There were massive financial difficulties at the club,” Taiwo says. “We could all see that. I loved football but I was switched on as well. I’m looking at the bigger picture and thinking, ‘Leeds are in trouble here’.

“I was there in the season when they got relegated to the Championship. I was there in the first season under Kevin Blackwell. You know when you can tell that things aren’t right? Well, that was it.”

Chelsea had a new academy plan and were in the market. And three players at Leeds were taking their fancy.

Roman Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea in 2003 — a buy-out which ended Bates’ long reign as the owner at Stamford Bridge — brought with it a fresh look at academy football. The club moved to a new training base near Cobham in Surrey and wanted a roster of youth-team players to match the quality of the facility.

Neil Bath, their long-serving academy coach, was named academy manager. Brendan Rodgers accepted an invitation from Jose Mourinho to join the coaching team. Frank Arnesen left Tottenham to become Chelsea’s sporting director. “It’s not just about catch-up,” Arnesen said in answer to questions about their academy. “It’s about having the best youth development programme in the world.”

Chelsea began throwing money at signing a whole host of scholars, in the UK and abroad. They landed Ryan Bertrand, Scott Sinclair, Patrick van Aanholt and numerous others. Bertrand cost an initial £125,000 from Gillingham in 2005 after the fee was decided by a tribunal. Gillingham chairman Paul Scally wanted more and called the tribunal’s valuation a “shocking deal”, claiming his club had been “sold short in a massive way”.

It was not their only controversial youth signing. In 2009, Chelsea were initially banned from making signings by FIFA after being found guilty of illegally recruiting 15-year-old Gael Kakuta, a France youth international at Lens. The ban was lifted on appeal by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) which ruled in Chelsea’s favour finding that Kakuta’s contract with Lens had not been valid. In what they called an “act of good faith”, Chelsea agreed to pay the French club a six-figure sum “as compensation costs for the training given to the player while at Lens.”

Academy recruitment was nothing new but the scale of Chelsea’s was reaching a different level and, before the battle over Taiwo and Woods, much of their harvesting went unnoticed. Money and the development of state-of-the-art facilities at Cobham made Chelsea a very easy sell and as the years passed, other Premier League sides reacted by dramatically expanding their networks. Glenn Roeder, the former West Ham United manager, described the volatile academy market as “a bloodbath, a free-for-all”.

As they scouted the country, Chelsea laid eyes on Taiwo, Woods and Rose. They liked what they saw and wanted all three of them. Rose was courted but chose to stay and sign a new contract, to the delight of Bates. (He would leave for Spurs 12 months later after Leeds were relegated to League One.) Taiwo and Woods weighed up their options and decided to go, unaware of the firefight into which they were about to walk. They left and agreed terms with Chelsea in April 2006 having rejected scholarships at Elland Road.

Bates, who was initially offered £200,000 for the pair by Chelsea, was furious about the departures and accused Chelsea of using Gary Worthington, a former Leeds scout and talent spotter who later joined Manchester City, to poach them illegally. Legal proceedings were issued against Worthington over an alleged breach of the severance deal agreed when he quit Leeds for Chelsea in 2005. The story blew up one weekend as quotes from Bates attacking his old club appeared on the back page of the Sunday Mirror. The names of Taiwo and Woods were not at all well known and the controversy seemed to have come from nowhere.

Taiwo had just turned 16 and says the decision to leave was entirely his. “My mum and dad didn’t leave me to deal with it myself, but they said from the start, ‘Tom, whatever you want to do is up to you. Do whatever makes you happy’,” he says.

“I’d played up a level at under-14s for Leeds but then played under-15s and under-16s in my own age group. I was getting England recognition and good reviews but I hadn’t made one appearance for the Leeds under-18s. I wasn’t sure why. Physically I was pretty developed and aggressive, but the club weren’t pushing me on.

“My personal view was that I didn’t think there was a pathway anymore. That doesn’t necessarily mean I was right but I look at the boys who went on to make debuts, like Jonny Howson and Fabian Delph. They were different players to me. Would they have put a 16 or 17-year-old defensive-minded midfielder into the first team in the Championship while there was loads of pressure on Blackwell? I don’t know for sure but I didn’t think so.

“I was criticised for not staying but if you speak to me, I don’t think I come across as a total plonker. People look from the outside, they look at decisions and make snap judgments about them. It’s not frustrating any more but at the time I was thinking, ‘You don’t have a clue about what’s happening or how much trouble the club are in. You don’t know what’s going on’.”

Chelsea’s financial clout is not in question. They were able to make offers to emerging talents and for players there was always the prospect of substantial wages, in excess of the salary a club like Leeds could pay if they went on to sign professional terms. Taiwo, though, says he chose Chelsea “for the right reasons and with the best of intentions”. He stands by the transfer today.


Abbott was worried about the pair getting lost in the mass of prospects at Cobham and went to Woods’ house to play devil’s advocate with his dad, David. “They’ve both got lovely families and I never doubted for a minute that the parents had the lads’ best interests at heart,” Abbott says. “I didn’t think Chelsea was a good move for them but that shouldn’t be read as me criticising them. I wouldn’t do that because they were being offered a fantastic opportunity. Chelsea were going to be appealing to anyone.

“I just felt they’d be better off staying at Leeds a little longer. I didn’t think they’d get into Chelsea’s first team: you were talking about the best of the best down there. I didn’t want them to go by the wayside. But at the same time, those are really big decisions and really tough decisions. It can be hard to know what to do for the best.”

Bates’ war with Chelsea became personal. He called a press conference at Elland Road to call for investigations by the Premier League and the FA into alleged tapping-up. Chelsea took umbrage in particular over him referring to their board as “a bunch of Siberian shysters” and accused him of racism, an allegation Bates laughed off. “Racism is the last card of a desperate man,” Bates said.

The dispute took several months to resolve but in October 2006, Chelsea agreed to pay £5 million in compensation and undertake “a review of policies and procedures in relation to the recruitment of players”. Bates, in turn, withdrew his complaints against Chelsea and Worthington, both of whom denied wrongdoing. The FA and Premier League jointly announced that “any claims and litigation arising out of any alleged improper approach have been settled.” The settlement was bound by confidentiality.

Taiwo and Woods were already in London and living in shared digs. A long way south, they were able to switch off from the arguing. “It was actually OK,” Taiwo says. “I was miles away in London and cracking on, doing what I loved.

“But in academy football, you’re not exposed to anything like that. You see the same boys every day and you have great coaches who look after you. You’re shielded. Outside of that, things happen which make you think ‘bloody hell!’ I’d get sent things that had been written about me in the paper. ‘Have you seen this?’ No, I haven’t and I wish I hadn’t either. It doesn’t make you feel great about yourself. You’ve got to be so thick-skinned.

“You make informed decisions and you speak to people and chat. It was a pros-and-cons situation and I did it for the right reasons. I’d spoken to people about Brendan Rodgers, who came across as a top coach. I felt the Chelsea academy was full of top people. From a decision-making point of view, I don’t look at it and say it was a bad decision. With all the information I had, it was a pretty sensible one.”

Having Woods with him at Chelsea was good for Taiwo. In terms of moral support, they were good for each other. But while Woods found his feet quickly and began to make the first-team staff notice him, Taiwo’s experience was very different.

“It was a contrasting situation,” Taiwo says. “I lived with Michael for about nine months until he moved closer to the training ground. He was doing amazing and starting to get into the first-team picture. He was exceptional, with innate ability, and Mourinho loved him. Me? I broke my leg before my first competitive game, the first game of the season.”

The injury occurred in training, two days before Taiwo’s youth team were due to play Liverpool. In a tangle of legs, he snapped a bone in his ankle and tore a ligament badly. “So much in football comes down to luck and timing,” he says. “I’m not sure I was ever going to be a top, top player but I could have done better than I did. The injury affected me from then on.

“I was out for eight or nine months. It was a really bad one, just as I was looking to kick on. It needed pins, screws, everything. I was confident that I’d have started against Liverpool but the injury stuffed me. How could you envisage that?

“Chelsea gave me these orthotics to wear and I should have worn them. But they were painful and I was already in a situation where I wasn’t in the team and wanted my place back. I was being offered something which, for a short time, wasn’t going to let me make the best impression so I threw them away. I just thought ‘bugger this’.”

Taiwo’s perspective on moving to Chelsea is fascinating. Rather than assuming a first-team career was waiting for him there, he tried to think about which academy setting would nurture him best. His prospects of making it at Stamford Bridge were small (he was never handed a senior debut and Woods played in just two FA Cup ties as a substitute) but he told himself that several years in Chelsea’s academy would give him an ideal grounding if professional football took him elsewhere.

“I had loads of top players around me — Liam Bridcutt, Jack Cork, Gael Kakuta and Michael,” he says. “I was clever enough to know that not all of them were going to play for Chelsea and I was honest enough to know that I wasn’t as good as them.”

After a brief spell on loan at Port Vale, the 2009-10 season saw a 19-year-old Taiwo leave on loan for Carlisle United in League One. Chelsea were so sympathetic about the effect of his ankle injury that they sanctioned the loan without charging Carlisle a penny. When that transfer became permanent in 2010, Taiwo could have been forgiven if he felt pessimistic. Stamford Bridge and Brunton Park were miles apart, geographically and professionally. Was the transition sobering?

“It was me who suggested to my agent that I sign permanently,” he says. “I was actually proud. I’d gone through some real soul-searching and I was in a positive space. I’d stepped out of my comfort zone, gone up to Carlisle and made it work. I was loving it.”


When his contract at Carlisle expired in 2012, Taiwo hoped to jump up the leagues but he says English clubs were hesitant: he was still under 24, which meant Carlisle were entitled to compensation if he made a domestic transfer. He went north of the border to Hibernian, where he tore his groin trying a Cruyff turn at Celtic Park. By then, he was never far away from another setback.

“I don’t have any bad feeling towards Carlisle,” he says, “but I’d established myself as one of the better players in League One and was ready to move on to the next stage. Carlisle wanted compensation and no one would pay it. I guess that was a time when things could have turned out different.”

After two years at Hibs, four years at Falkirk and one with Hamilton, Taiwo listened to his body and retired.

At no stage does Taiwo give the impression that his playing career left him unfulfilled. It is the irony of the perception that he went to Chelsea to potentially to earn more money or for the bright lights: he enjoyed League One, the Scottish Premier League and the Scottish Championship. He never felt any of those levels were beneath him. He calls his transfer in 2006 a “no-brainer” but what his experience reveals is the difficulty of making major, life-changing decisions at an age when players are barely out of school.

Is any 16-year-old really cynical enough to think only of where they might earn better money? You suspect not. And like Abbott says, the Taiwos and the Woods were sensible families. The moral of this controversy is that academy footballers are too young to be vilified in the media.


Taiwo lives in Edinburgh now and scouts for Chelsea, covering Scotland and the north east. Life has taught him to live with criticism. “When I left Falkirk — and I know this is on a different scale to Leeds — I had people messaging me on Facebook thanking me for my service,” he says. “But I saw plenty of other posts saying, ‘Thank God he’s gone’. The game can be tough and with what I know, I don’t envy kids having to make big decisions at a young age.

“There are always people who want to see you fail. The saddest part for me was that, after I joined Carlisle, some people took great joy in the fact that it hadn’t worked out for me at Chelsea — people online and people in the street when I went home. When you sign for someone else, you expect to hear opinions, including some criticism. But, naively, I didn’t think anyone would actually take pleasure in my career not hitting the heights.”

These days, when he goes back to Leeds, he is rarely asked about the summer when he and Woods — two hot but obscure teenagers — became the talk of the country. “It’s almost as if it’s a long time ago now and everyone’s moved on,” he says. “There’s always the next young player to come through or the next saga around the corner. I think everyone’s forgotten. Which is a good thing.”

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Investigation: Chelsea taken to High Court by victims of racist abuse



On the face of it, Chelsea’s response to the Gwyn Williams racism scandal was everything that might have been expected from a club that has prominently voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the last couple of weeks.

The club issued a public apology after an independent inquiry concluded Williams had subjected black youth-team players as young as 12 to years of explicit racist abuse. Chelsea, who had commissioned the inquiry, offered counselling to the victims and said they were determined to stand in solidarity with the players. “We want to apologise to all players who experienced this deeply shocking behaviour,” a club statement read.

What they didn’t mention at the time was that, behind the scenes, a team of specialist lawyers was already working on Chelsea’s behalf to fight civil claims from players who, to use the club’s own description, had been part of “an environment where racially abusive behaviour became normalised”.

Today, an investigation by The Athletic can reveal that Chelsea are involved in a legal battle with a number of players who claim their experiences in the 1980s and 1990s left them with long-term psychological damage, including depression, anger and relationship issues.

The case is listed at the High Court for a three-week trial in March 2022 and has been brought by four former footballers, including one who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because, he says, of a “feral environment” in which black players were treated “like a race of fucking dogs”.

Chelsea’s position is that the issue is being handled by their insurers’ lawyers, rather than the club, and that the matter is therefore out of their hands. However, that has not appeased the racial-abuse victims when it is “Chelsea Football Club Limited” listed as the defendants in court.

The Athletic can reveal Chelsea have simultaneously been paying damages to the victims of Eddie Heath, the former club scout who used his position to groom and abuse boys, aged from 10 upwards, during the 1970s. Heath, who died in 1983, was described in an independent QC-led inquiry last year as a “prolific and manipulative sexual abuser” who was able to operate “unchallenged”. His victims are understood to have received five-figure payments from the club’s insurers and a personal apology from chairman Bruce Buck.

Chelsea have taken a different stance, however, when it comes to the racism claims and are denying liability in each case. They had previously stated they were determined to “do the right thing” and it has left the relevant players feeling angry, hurt and disillusioned at a time when the club are showing public support for the Black Lives Matter protests.

“The fact Chelsea have publicly come out in support of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter stinks of hypocrisy,” one player says. “As survivors of racial abuse at the club, we feel let down again, like our black lives don’t matter. The public face of Chelsea is not the private face of the club.”

An investigation by The Athletic has discovered:

Chelsea’s insurers have appointed a specialist legal firm Keoghs, which previously defended the Roman Catholic church as well as Crewe Alexandra in sexual-abuse scandals.

At least 10 former players, now in their 40s and 50s, are preparing cases relating to what one member of Williams’ youth team has described as a “mini apartheid state”.

One legal argument put forward on Chelsea’s behalf is that the players should have lodged their claims against Williams, not the club.

Jody Morris, currently No 2 to the club’s head coach Frank Lampard, may be among the former Chelsea players required to give evidence, having come through their youth system in the relevant years.

Chelsea have not offered individual apologies to the racially abused players since the independent inquiry carried out by Barnardo’s, Britain’s largest children’s charity, was published in August last year.

Williams, who is in his early 70s and said to have retired from football, was a prominent figure at Chelsea for 27 years, including a spell as assistant manager to Claudio Ranieri and a role in the scouting department for Jose Mourinho.

The allegations relate mostly to Williams’ years as Chelsea’s youth-team coach, with the 70-page Barnardo’s report detailing “many different accounts of terms being used by GW (Williams) such as ‘niggers’, ‘nig-nogs’, ‘rubber lips’, ‘monkey’ … ‘little coon’ … ‘darkie’. Other derogatory remarks reported to have been made to young black players included, ‘Who were you robbing last night?’”

Williams was said to have referred to three black youth-team players as “the Three Degrees”. He had a habit of “mimicking racial stereotypes by kissing one’s teeth, using a particular handshake and doing a particular walk in front of black players.” There were reports of him making chimpanzee-type actions towards his own players.

gwyn williams chelsea

The Athletic has spent several months gathering information about what, barring an out-of-court settlement, is shaping up to be the first case of its kind in football.

One of the players, whose account has been corroborated by two white team-mates, told the independent inquiry he had been so badly affected he found it too painful even to watch Chelsea on television because of the flashbacks. Even now, 35 years after he left the club, he remains so tortured by his experiences that he deliberately avoids going near their Stamford Bridge stadium.

The Barnardo’s investigators found a culture in which one black player was voted by team-mates as their player of the year only for the award to be given to a white player instead.

Williams was said to organise blacks-v-whites training matches and a mixed-race player, on his first day, was asked to choose his team. Some players became so worn down, they gave up football for good. One had gone all the way through the system and been awarded a professional contract but decided within a few months that he couldn’t take any more.

Other accounts relate to the long-term psychological damage, how “it never goes away” and how the pattern of abuse, in one victim’s words, felt like “a total avalanche.” One player described how the experience “sapped my self-confidence piece by piece”. Another felt “worthless, inferior, second-rate, degraded”.

Williams, widely credited for discovering future Chelsea captain John Terry as a youngster, has always denied making any racial comments whatsoever and, according to Barnardo’s, described the evidence against him as “biased, untrue, unfair and artificial and part of a concerted effort to scapegoat him concerning issues said to have existed from over 30 years ago”.

However, in the current case, The Athletic has discovered that Keoghs has written to the players to say they should be redirecting their complaints to Williams, not Chelsea. Keoghs even supplied the telephone number and company address for Eddie Johns, the solicitor for Williams.

The appointment of Keoghs is particularly noteworthy bearing in mind the publicity surrounding its tactics in the Crewe sexual-abuse scandal.

When Steve Walters, one of the abuse victims from Crewe’s junior system in the 1980s, lodged a claim for damages against the club, he received a letter from Keoghs stating there was “no reasonable explanation or justification” for him having waited until his mid-40s before reporting what had happened.

Legal papers submitted on Crewe’s behalf stated “there is no, or no adequate, explanation” why boys who had been raped and molested, mostly from the ages of 11 to 14, had not come forward earlier. Keoghs, a Bolton-based firm, specialises in limitation, the legal term for arguing that long delays can prejudice court cases. Kim Harrison, the lawyer representing Walters, described it as a “desperate and dirty tactic”.

Keoghs was also used by Blackpool earlier this year in the High Court case that led to that club being ordered to pay damages to a former junior player who, aged 13, was sexually abused by Frank Roper, one of their scouts in the 1980s. The judge ordered Blackpool to pay costs on an indemnity basis because the club, through their solicitors, had repeatedly ignored attempts by the claimant’s solicitors to try to reach a settlement.

The victim told the court he was “shocked by the approach taken by Blackpool. When I came forward, I expected the club to want to engage and to understand what had happened”. Making the costs order, the judge said the club’s conduct had been a factor and commented that “the reasons given for refusing to engage in mediation were inadequate”.

In Chelsea’s case, a trial in the High Court would attract huge media interest and potentially be of intense embarrassment. As well as Morris, there is the likelihood a number of former Chelsea players and staff members will be asked to give evidence.

“It makes an absolute mockery of a 17-month independent investigation that Chelsea commissioned themselves,” one former Chelsea player, who was diagnosed with depression after leaving the club, tells The Athletic. “Chelsea accepted the findings and issued a public apology to say sorry for getting it so wrong. Then two months later the lawyers deny liability again. It’s crazy.”

Chelsea put up a Twitter post on June 1 announcing they “stand together with George Floyd and all victims in the fight against discrimination, brutality and injustice”. The following day, the club released a photograph of their first-team squad taking the knee as a symbol of solidarity.

For Chelsea, these are matters of great importance when the club have not just had to deal with the Williams case but also a number of other high-profile incidents such as the John Terry trial (Terry was cleared of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand, then of Queens Park Rangers, during a match but later banned by the Football Association). More recently, there was the racism that Raheem Sterling encountered when Manchester City visited Stamford Bridge in December 2018, leading to a Chelsea fan being banned from the stadium for life. In 2015, Chelsea were embarrassed by video footage showing a group of their supporters stopping a black commuter getting on a Paris Metro train, pushing him back onto the platform. Four fans were later given suspended sentences.

Chelsea have spoken out on many occasions against racism and, in their Twitter messages about Black Lives Matter, say they are “committed to being a part of the solution and we are joining our voice to all those calling for fairness, equality and meaningful change”.

That, however, has opened them up to criticism from the players, who now find themselves preparing for a court case against the club that once held their dreams.

One has told The Athletic that “it is hypocritical to say they support black abuse victims when they continue to treat me so unsympathetically”.

Others from the same case have said the same. “Chelsea had a chance to show the world that they would not tolerate the racial, physical and mental abuse found in the club-commissioned report by Barnardo’s,” one of Williams’ former youth-team players says. “To date, I have not received an apology from them.”

Chelsea said in a statement: “In August 2019, Chelsea FC published an independent review into non-recent racial abuse, which took place in the 1980s and 1990s. The board of Chelsea FC also apologised to all players who experienced this deeply shocking behaviour and has offered support to all those who suffered. The club today is a very different place from the club then, with new ownership, operational structures and robust safeguarding procedures in place.
“All claims for compensation are assessed and managed by the insurer appointed as part of a league-wide scheme of insurance. Whilst the insurer has full control over the claims, including the selection of lawyers, it remains the club’s desire that the cases are resolved as soon as possible.
“The club remains completely committed to providing support to survivors of abuse and ensuring that all our former players can access holistic support when it is needed through our dedicated Player Support Service.”

Chelsea say they are acutely aware there have been problems in the 1980s and 1990s of their black players experiencing in-house racism. The club’s argument is that the current regime has offered support to those players and their families and, in some cases, has helped the individuals reconnect with the club, attending first-team and academy fixtures as guests. Some of the players in the Williams case had meetings with Buck and the club’s head of safeguarding, Eva Bari, in the months before Barnardo’s published its report.

The players whose cases have reached the High Court are represented by Dino Nocivelli, a specialist abuse lawyer from Bolt Burdon Kemp solicitors in London, which has a number of other clients pursuing claims. Samantha Robson, of Robson Shaw solicitors, is representing another player who has instigated a separate claim.

“I have seen the club’s recent post in respect of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Nocivelli says. “Actions speak louder than words. We support and fight for our clients against injustice and we want the club to be part of the solution rather than another hurdle. My clients want to be treated fairly and to achieve meaningful change through these civil cases.”

Many of the players are also unhappy that Chelsea never condemned their former chairman, Ken Bates, for suggesting that “all these ancient coming-outs so many years later” were because “the sniff of money is in the air”.

Speaking in May 2018, Bates said he was keeping an open mind about the allegations involving Williams but added that the boys in question should have found themselves other clubs if their time at Chelsea was so upsetting. He criticised the players for preferring to speak anonymously and described it as “trial by smear”.

Nocivelli accused Bates of making “shameful” comments and it is increasingly clear that the players would have liked the current regime at Chelsea to say something, too.

“The club had the chance to distance themselves from how Ken Bates referred to myself and the other young black players who raised racial abuse within the club,” one says. “Instead they have turned a blind eye and this really hurts.”

Williams has also been accused in the past of making homophobic comments to Graeme Le Saux, the former Chelsea and England defender. “He would wander up to me before training and say, ‘Come on, poof. Get your boots on’,” Le Saux wrote in his autobiography.

Williams was so close to Bates, he later followed him to Leeds United, where he became the Yorkshire club’s technical director.

He was dismissed by Leeds for gross misconduct in 2013 after emailing pornographic images of women to a number of colleagues, including a female receptionist.

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2 hours ago, ZAPHOD2319 said:

Could someone put into context what Dan Levene is talking about here?


Nick Lowles and the perpetual cunty-mooded, slash caped crusader Levene are smearing (via broadbrush, which is par for the course with Levene) most all people with a Chels shirt on yesterday as EDL/nazi types

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I have Dan Levene on twitter but in the past three weeks he has not been tweeting anything about football. Then in the past few days his tweets seem to be calling out CFC because some asshat has a CFC tattoo and somehow that makes it CFC's need to somehow take charge for his actions. I was thinking about unfollowing him because he really does not provide much football analysis.

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10 hours ago, ZAPHOD2319 said:

I have Dan Levene on twitter but in the past three weeks he has not been tweeting anything about football. Then in the past few days his tweets seem to be calling out CFC because some asshat has a CFC tattoo and somehow that makes it CFC's need to somehow take charge for his actions. I was thinking about unfollowing him because he really does not provide much football analysis.

supposedly that bloke is not a Chels fan, he lost a bet or a dare and got the tattoo, he is a Southend United thug

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and now look at this

he hid the reply with all the details


Dan Levene
Journalist. Retired from international football. Latest in a long line fighting extremism since 1881.

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Marcus Rashford has raised more than £ 20m for poor children to receive free meals in the Summer holidays. Superb. He knew what it was like growing up with nothing.

Now I'm Chelsea through and through, but whose kids will be the most proud of their dad when him and Hudson Odoi are asked ''what did you do during the lockdown dad ?''


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2 hours ago, Fulham Broadway said:

Marcus Rashford has raised more than £ 20m for poor children to receive free meals in the Summer holidays. Superb. He knew what it was like growing up with nothing.

Now I'm Chelsea through and through, but whose kids will be the most proud of their dad when him and Hudson Odoi are asked ''what did you do during the lockdown dad ?''


Its good that he is doing it but bad he is having to!


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I see a lot of symbolism here. We played our first CL final in Russia. Second when we won in Munich (exactly 10 years later new chance) and London is our home.

I do not have any doubt we will be in one of them!

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55 minutes ago, NikkiCFC said:




I see a lot of symbolism here. We played our first CL final in Russia. Second when we won in Munich (exactly 10 years later new chance) and London is our home.

I do not have any doubt we will be in one of them!

All been put forward a year and Istanbul is getting 2021.

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On 16/06/2020 at 8:08 PM, Tomo said:

All been put forward a year and Istanbul is getting 2021.

so fucked up that Turkey gets a CL final


and Hungary gets a Europa league final in 2022

both those counties are now horrid dictatorships


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