Chelsea Under-21s head coach Mark Robinson believes our 2023/24 campaign saw a young side take huge strides in their development, even if silverware proved elusive after reaching two semi-finals.

For our Under-21s, this season has been one of mixed emotions. Despite being one of the youngest sides in the Premier League 2, we secured a fourth-place finish and reached the semi-finals of the play-offs, where we were narrowly eliminated by an injury-time goal by league winners Tottenham.

We also had a strong showing in the Premier League International Cup, only succumbing to a much older PSV Eindhoven side who feature in the second division of the Dutch men's league system, and reached the last four of the Premier League Cup before a disappointing 4-0 defeat to Fulham.

Although we couldn't quite make it to a final and lift silverware this season, there was plenty for head coach Mark Robinson to be pleased about, with some impressive performances and clear progress by the side over the course of campaign, which is arguably the most important thing in Academy football.

'I have to say collectively it feels like a bit of a nearly season, with two semi-finals and a quarter-final, but it was still a strong season,' explains Robinson. 'We finished fourth in the league but it’s been a hugely successful season in terms of individual development.

'When I look at the development of the individual players – unfortunately quite a few of them got injured and didn't feature at the end of the season – and the amount of Under-18s, Under-17s and even a few Under-16s we had playing PL2 football and cup games, it's been very pleasing.

'I think the individual development of the players this season has been a massive success and should really put us in good stead for future seasons.'

Overcoming a shaky start

The big changes in personnel and relatively youthful squad at Robinson's disposal was clear early on, when despite a winning start with a 6-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers, we lost our next three games in a row.

Robinson insists he was never worried, though, knowing it was only a matter of time before the team began to show their true ability.

'It was a mixed squad. The teams we played earlier in the season were a lot older and it wasn’t like we lost heavily, there were fine margins.

'So I was never concerned really, you just wonder how long it’s going to take, and fortunately it didn’t take that long. Apart from those first few games we’ve been fairly consistent.

'If you look at the team we put out in the PL2 semi-final compared to the team we started with, it’s barely the same. Yet we’ve managed to stay competitive on all fronts and no matter how old we’ve been we’ve managed to stay really competitive in all competitions and give players much needed experience.

'Even with the lads who were doing great getting injured, we still managed to keep shuffling the pack and giving young players great experience. So I think individually it’s been a real success.

'There’s been an awful lot of changes, along with all the debuts in the first team, which has meant constant changes, and we’ve managed to stay competitive and get a lot of individual development in there.'

Strong finish

The Blues soon found their feet and, after losing three of our first four fixtures, would taste defeat in the league on just four more occasions all season, and only twice after the Christmas break.

That second half of the campaign was especially promising, with a run of form after the turn of the year which saw us rise up the Premier League 2 table as well as making good progress in both cup competitions.

'Some of it does come from having a bit more consistency,' continued Robinson. 'At that point the squad was a little bit more consistent, so that makes it easier to get a fluency into your game when you’re working with players consistently all the time.

'So it was a bit of that, but we faced an awful lot of it not being like that, where players are changing all the time. That’s been pleasing because the performances on the whole have been pretty consistent.

'Most importantly, we can’t forget about the amount of senior debuts we’ve had this season, which is obviously what it’s all about.'

Fighting back

Throughout 2023/24 our Under-21s showed a fighting spirit which allowed them to bounce back from setbacks on several occasions. That was demonstrated in the end-of-season Premier League 2 title play-offs, when we had our lead cancelled out three times by Brighton before securing a 5-4 win late in extra time, then came from behind to get another late winner at Arsenal in the quarters.

While Robinson would obviously prefer for the team not to find themselves in those situations, he was pleased to see his players developing the mentality to never give up.

'Obviously you’d rather lead from the front and dominate games, but such a huge part of their individual careers is going to be based on how they perform under pressure.

'One of the slightly negative sides is I feel sometimes in the bigger games under pressure we haven’t taken games by the scruff of the neck in terms of what we’re capable of. But then on the plus side we have shown some character to come back and win those games.

'So it’s a bit mixed emotions, but it’s always good to see the character to come back. The next stage really is to not put yourself in that position in the first place.'

Moments to remember

It has been a season of highs and lows for our Under-21s, then, but two of the former stood out for Robinson, both in terms of his team's most impressive performance, and a breakthrough campaign for the player who began 2023/24 captaining the Academy side.

'My collective highlight was West Ham away. I just felt that was the closest we came to a real men’s-team performance. If I was managing a first team and looked at that, there would have been a lot of lads I would have been happy to take into a good level of men’s football on that performance.

'It was a very solid 2-0 victory against a very good side. I felt that was a real turning point in terms of the players understanding what it takes to win games of football.

'My individual highlight was seeing Alfie Gilchrist getting the rewards for all his hard work and making his first Premier League start at Stamford Bridge for the men's team against Tottenham, when I thought he was outstanding.

'He bought me a Chelsea pin badge when he made his first appearance, so I always wear that to men's games when Alfie's involved, which is nice.'