Chelsea Under-18s were crowned Premier League southern champions in 2023/24 and head coach Hassan Sulaiman believes that success and the high-pressure moments which led to it will serve his young players well throughout their future careers.

The season might have ended on a disappointment, as the Blues were beaten by Manchester United in the Under-18 Premier League national final at Stamford Bridge, but now the dust has settled head coach Hassan Sulaiman is able to look back at the campaign as a whole, and take pleasure from a successful year in terms of silverware and development.

The high point arrived when we defeated Southampton to secure the Under-18 Premier League southern title after a long battle at the top with West Ham United. That saw the trophy heading back to Cobham for the first time since 2018, when the squad featured nine players who would go on to become senior internationals - including Conor Gallagher and Reece James, who have both captained Chelsea's senior team this season.

It was a success which meant a lot to all those associated with our Academy and Sulaiman believes that even beyond the satisfaction of winning silverware, it was an invaluable experience for the teenagers in his Under-18s squad.

'It was massive,' he said. 'Winning’s definitely always been a part of our DNA in the Chelsea Academy. Winning is important to us, because we do want to win, but also because it encourages winning behaviours and teaches players to win.

'Winning is a part of development but we’re not about winning at all costs. I don’t think we hide that we want to win and I don’t think anyone should be ashamed to say that - if you fall short then you fall short, it’s all part of the game that we love.

'For the boys it’s massive to understand what those winning behaviours look like and what it takes to be resilient and dig deep, making sure that you step up. That builds and shapes their character, which prepares them for the very top level, because our aim is that everyone gets to the top level.

'Some big names have won it with Chelsea before and I’m sure they benefited from winning trophies, getting to finals and when you look at them now they understand what it takes to win.'

Strong start

The signs that 2023/24 could be a good season for our Under-18s were there right from the beginning, when we opened our campaign by laying down a marker. A 2-1 win over Crystal Palace started a run of five wins from our opening six fixtures, with the Blues especially impressive on the road, scoring 11 goals across our first two away trips, beating Aston Villa 5-1 and Norwich City 6-3.

'There were probably two points early in the season when I thought “you know what, this is going to be special”,' recalled Sulaiman. 'The first one was in pre-season, when we played our last friendly against Man City. We not only had a big win but an absolutely breathtaking performance.

'Then the second league game – Crystal Palace was a good win, but certainly Aston Villa cemented that feeling. We went 4-0 up in the first half, but we probably played some of the best football we played all season. So I think the Villa game probably cemented it, but the earliest point we thought we were on to something was pre-season.

'Pre-season isn’t always a good measure, because you take results with a pinch of salt, but it wasn’t about the result, it was about the performance. In that last pre-season game it usually gives you an indication of what your season could look like, but certainly that Aston Villa game was a real measure of showing we were in a very strong position.'

Goals galore

Those big wins at Villa and Norwich also demonstrated one of the key assets in the Blues' title triumph, as we carried an attacking threat throughout the campaign. That was shown by our impressive tally of 72 goals scored in 24 league matches, averaging three a game across the whole season.

However, despite the eye-catching attacking statistics, Sulaiman is quick to give credit to his team all across the pitch.

'We create a high number of chances per game and we’ve got some really exciting attacking players as well. Then behind them we’ve got midfield players who are able to supply the attack.

'So we’ve had real strength and depth when we break into the final third and that’s allowed us to score some cracking goals, but equally as important as those goals scored are the ones we’ve kept out the back of our own net.

'That just goes to show what a strong team we’ve had all season. We’ve got some really good players and we’ve defended really well at times when called upon to.

'We won the southern league and it’s a tough league. You’ve got to defend and you’ve got to make sure you score goals and then everything else in between you hope falls into place. For the majority of the season we were able to do that.'

Relentless run

For much of the season Chelsea were playing catch-up. Despite our excellent form, our lower number of league fixtures during the first half of 2023/24 meant we were constantly trying to close the gap on leaders West Ham, having six games in hand over our rivals at one point.

Despite that, we were never out of the running in the title race, and we gradually reeled in the Hammers to set up a tense finale thanks to a run of 14 league games unbeaten, not tasting defeat in the Under-18 Premier League from late October until the start of May.

'We never spoke about being unbeaten. I don't think you speak about not losing when you’ve got your eyes set on a bigger prize. For us the focus was the boys wanting to win the league from a team perspective, but also we’ve got some really good individuals in the team and I think that’s what gives you confidence.

'You look at the individuals that you’ve got, you look at the work ethic of the players, you think about all the specialist coaches that they’re exposed to. I can’t speak highly enough of the staff who have helped the players to reach the levels they have.

'It’s all about maximising potential. We’ve got some top players and the winning was just a by-product of what we do day in, day out.

'So we never spoke about trying to stay unbeaten and of course when we lost to Norwich and that run came to an end, we didn’t go back and say it had been so many games we’d gone unbeaten and unfortunately it had come to finish. I don’t think losing was ever even in the back of our minds.'

Showing character

After all those months of chasing the leaders and knowing any dropped points would make our task even more difficult, by the time our unbeaten run came to an end in May we had not only caught, but surpassed West Ham.

That meant we ended the season under a very different kind of pressure, now being the ones with something to lose as we attempted to see it out in three games over the last eight days of the season, when the 2-1 win at Southampton in the second of those sealed our victory.

'We spoke about it once we were three or four points clear. We’d spent so many months trying to get to the top that when you’re finally there it just evokes a different feeling for the boys. It’s a different type of pressure and a good pressure, because none of them had been in that sort of position before, trying to win a title.

'So it was new to them but they have the fighting spirit to keep going and going. That’s what was commendable. Regardless of whether you’re chasing or you’re being chased, those behaviours have to be consistent.

'You need to have that character to want to fight. You need to have the discipline, you need to show integrity and humility, and if you stay grounded you achieve your goals. Whether you’re chasing or being chased is irrelevant, we had to focus on ourselves. That was our objective throughout the season and that’s what we did.

'We focused on ourselves, then everything else falls into place. Even when we were chasing, we weren’t saying we were three points or six points behind West Ham. We just kept going, kept our head down and kept working hard.'

Top performance

Looking back at the end of a successful season, one match stands out for Sulaiman as a particularly proud moment, when we recorded an emphatic win away at Tottenham Hotspur in the middle of our long unbeaten run.

'As a team, the win that we had away at Tottenham in February, beating them 4-1, stands out for me. That was a big game because we were chasing the leaders.

'Tottenham were a team that were in full flow, a very good team, and we knew that if we did want to have any ambition of catching West Ham we needed to beat Tottenham.

'I think our performance against Tottenham definitely goes down as one of the best performances that we’ve had all season. So that’s definitely up there as one of my best moments of the season.'

Proud moments

However, nothing gave Sulaiman as much pride over the course of the season as seeing the players and people his squad has grown up to become as they approach the latter stages of their teens.

Having progressed through the coaching ranks in the Academy alongside many of the players moving up the age groups, he has witnessed first-hand how far they have come in their development over several years.

'Seeing the boys that went to the Under-17s World Cup with England was a particularly proud moment this season, with the number of players we had represent the country over that period.

'Also it’s personal for me because I’ve coached a lot of these boys since they were 14. There’s a deep connection, because I know what they were like at 14 and then to see them now at 18 has been brilliant. So that moment definitely sticks out for me.

'I’ve coached some of them every year since they were 14. They’ve grown a lot and it’s so rewarding to see that happen and see where they are now. And with their parents too. I had some difficult conversations with parents when their children were going through a bit of growth so weren't performing well, because parents can get quite dejected at those points.

'I tried to reassure them that it would turn out okay, so when I see some of the players now, I remind the parents that I told them he was going to be fine. It’s always nice to see them when they’ve come through the other side of those periods, so that’s probably been the biggest thing for me personally.'