‘You will never hear anyone question the character of Alfie Gilchrist. He loves his football, he loves the club and he gives his all every single day. He is a pleasure to work with.’

Those are the words of Ed Brand, our former Under-18s head coach. Yet the overriding sentiment is echoed by staff throughout the Chelsea Academy. As a person and player, Gilchrist is held in high esteem.

He joined the Blues at 11 years old from Queens Park Rangers. As is the case with any young player brought into the youth system at Cobham, there were expectations to meet, growing pains to endure and challenges to overcome.

Gilchrist approached them with the same attitude that has resulted in his incorporation into the senior team this season – and a new contract that runs until the summer of 2026 and includes a further one-year option.

‘It was tough at times,’ reflects Gilchrist. ‘I never really felt like one of the top players in the group. But I had a good mentality and I feel that’s what helped me a lot. Every day, I kept on working and trying to improve.’

That mindset was evident to Hassan Sulaiman, one of Gilchrist’s early coaches at Chelsea and now in charge of our Under-18s, who are competing to win the Under-18 Premier League title this season.

‘I worked with Alfie at Under-13s,’ recalls Sulaiman. ‘He was in many ways the same type of player he is now. He was a bit quieter because he was still finding his feet at Chelsea after joining from QPR, but he held himself and his team to high standards, had leadership qualities and always gave 100 per cent.

‘There was a transition coming from QPR because at Chelsea we often had more of the ball. We worked with him to refine his technical skills so he could play through a press confidently with a range of passes.

‘He did take real joy from making tackles, making blocks, stopping his opponent, defending well. Those defensive instincts are so important – and they are not always easy to come by now because everyone glamourises playing out from the back rather than the art of defending.’

Gilchrist progressed through the age groups and signed a scholarship with Chelsea in the summer of 2020. The following season, while a first year, he played regularly for our Under-18s and captained the side on multiple occasions.

That campaign, 2020/21, was the first in which Brand coached Gilchrist. He predominantly utilised the young defender at centre-back but deployed him on occasion at full-back, the position he has played most of his first-team minutes this season.

‘Something that has stood out with Alfie is he has genuine desire to defend his goal,’ says Brand, who is now a professional development phase coach with the Blues. ‘Of course, he can play as well and is strong passing off both feet, but you can’t underestimate having that desire in a defender.

‘Then you’ve got his professionalism and leadership – why I made him captain numerous times. There are no airs or graces with Alfie. He gets his head down, he does his work and contributes to the team.

‘He’s always been that way. That’s credit to him but also his family - that he is a level-headed, mature, down-to-earth kid.’

Gilchrist had to earn his minutes under Brand. He started just three of our opening nine Under-18 Premier League matches that season, but was then named in the side for 10 of the remaining 15 fixtures.

‘He backs his ability, which any player has to if they are going to perform at the highest level,’ Brand continues. ‘Alfie has that determination but balances it so well with humility, hunger and a desire to improve constantly. He’s always ready to listen and learn. I can’t speak highly enough of him.’

Gilchrist signed his first professional contract during his debut season with the Under-18s and ended the campaign as the club’s Scholar of the Year. In his second campaign, he captained the Under-18s to victory in the Premier League Cup and the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup.

Appearances for our Under-21s had also been made. Ahead of the 2022/23 season, Gilchrist moved up permanently to that age group and worked under Mark Robinson, who had then arrived as head coach.

Robinson was quickly impressed by the young defender but wanted to challenge him further both on and off the pitch. ‘When I first met Alfie, it was clear he was enthusiastic,’ Robinson explains. ‘He trained well but I felt there was more to come from him.

‘We talked a lot through that stage and when Bashir [Humphreys] went out on loan it was the perfect chance for him to be given that opportunity to step up [and take on the captaincy].

‘Every coach has slightly different ideas and the great thing with Alf was he always bought into ideas we brought him or talked to him about. He gave it 100 per cent and you saw his progression.’

Gilchrist made 26 appearances for our Under-21s last term and a further three for our Under-19s in the UEFA Youth League. He was also nominated for the Premier League 2 Player of the Season award.

Yet the stand-out moment of his season arrived after the Under-21s’ campaign had finished – and a short holiday in Spain had been enjoyed. On his return, Gilchrist received a call from Robinson, informing him to join first-team training under childhood hero Frank Lampard.

Gilchrist was subsequently named on the substitutes’ bench for an away game against Manchester United. It was an amuse-bouche for what was to follow this season.

Robinson named Gilchrist captain of the Under-21s last summer. He also pushed him out of his comfort zone with more demanding tactical instructions in possession. ‘I think Alf would admit he was out of his comfort zone initially, but because he’s such a great character, he bought into it, pushed himself and we saw a good improvement.’

Gilchrist balanced men's training and matchday involvement with Under-21s duties for the majority of the first half of the campaign. However, by December, he was a regular substitute under Mauricio Pochettino and debuted against Crystal Palace just after Christmas.

An outing away at Luton Town followed three days later; a first start then arrived against Preston North End. And in January, Gilchrist officially cleared out his locker in the Academy and moved into the senior-team building.

‘Through the years, you see players like Reece James and Conor Gallagher coming through the system and you can see that pathway,’ Gilchrist says. ‘The same coaches that coached them also coached us. They’re telling us the stories of what to do and how to get there. That helps a lot.’

Gilchrist has now made 12 senior appearances for his boyhood club and has forged a bond with supporters in the stands, which in his childhood included his dad, uncle, auntie and grandfather.

‘It’s always great to see someone who loves the club as a fan progress,’ says Robinson, another lifelong Blue.

‘Sometimes when an Academy player steps into a first-team environment, it can be hard to take the same personality across from the Under-21s, where they are one of the older players.

'But what it appears he has managed to do so well is to continue to be that same person, which is great.

‘Seeing players like Alfie take their first steps in men's football means everything to all the coaches and the Academy. It’s what it’s all about. It’s quite nerve-wracking but it’s why we do our jobs.’