Former Chelsea youth team captain Charlie Colkett says he felt he ended up “being a bit of a number” after several loan moves and a lack of first-team football at Stamford Bridge.
Colkett led the Blues to successive FA Youth Cup victories and back-to-back Uefa Youth League titles.
But he was one of many graduates from a prodigiously successful academy who never played for the senior team.
“It would be harsh to say I was let down,” the 22-year-old told BBC Sport.
“But you become part of the system and, at the end of the day, end up being a bit of a number.”
He says his mental health was affected by the realisation that his dream of first-team football at Stamford Bridge was over – after he was sent on loan four times.
After spells at Bristol Rovers, Swindon, Shrewsbury and Dutch club Vitesse Arnehm, he has left Chelsea and signed for Swedish club Ostersunds FK.
“Mentally it was one of the toughest times of my life, going from place to place and being told go here, go there, this will be the one, this will be the one.
“You believe that it’s the process and you trust it, but you don’t always get the fair opportunity or the right move.
“[While on loan] I gave my absolute everything, every day, but for some reason it wasn’t enough.
“I just worked harder and did everything absolutely correctly to give myself every chance to be recognised.
“But there was no light at the end of the tunnel.”
Chelsea have 41 players on loan, 20 of whom joined the Premier League club’s academy as young teenagers or children.
From the generation captained by Colkett, only Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andreas Christensen are in the Blues’ first-team squad, while Dominic Solanke – now at Bournemouth – is the only other player in the Premier League.
But Colkett does not regret his decision to choose Chelsea, saying that creating careers is just as important as filling the first team with homegrown talent.
“They still produce as many professional footballers as they can, and I hope we’ll all go on to have very good careers,” he said.
“Around the age of 12, I had the opportunity to go to numerous clubs – Tottenham, Arsenal, West Ham, Liverpool. I ended up going to Chelsea and training there. It does have a feel about the place.
“Up until a certain age I think it’s the best place you can be. The schooling you get, the education and how you’re brought up is amazing.”
That grounding, as well as providing young players a chance of a professional career, has also created a lucrative business model for Chelsea.
Since 2013, the club has sold 11 graduates at an average fee of £7m, according to figures from transfermarkt.com. Two of those players, forwards Stipe Perica and Patrick Bamford, did not play a single minute for the club yet between them brought in £10m.
Defender Nathan Ake only made seven appearances, but Chelsea still got £20m for him from Bournemouth in 2017.
But for players like Colkett, it is a life on the road until a contract can be gained.
“Everyone goes through things in life and there are people who are worse off than me,” he says. “But when you’re going through your own problems in your own head, it can become a bit of a dark place at times.
“I did have the decision whether to sign [for Ostersund] on loan or a permanent deal, and I chose the permanent option because it’s nice to feel settled, feel loved somewhere and have a base again.
“Where I grew up [in East London], I’ve got a lot of people depending on me and I feel like there are a lot of young kids who continue to look up to me, so I’m still trying to be their inspiration because they’re also trying to make it out of the area.”