The first thing Mark Robinson did after academy director Neil Bath told him he was Chelsea‘s new under-21s coach was ringing his wife Clare.
“I had held it together while I was on the phone to Neil, but when I spoke to my wife I had a good old cry,” Robinson tells The Athletic. “I got home and there were blue balloons on the door. It was an amazing feeling.”
Getting the opportunity to work with the top age group at one of the best academies in European football is exciting in itself, and for Robinson, it means even more because he is doing so at the club he has supported all his life.
“My family have gone to watch Chelsea since the 1940s,” he says. “My dad, my mum… it was just our lives. I was taken to my first game when I was just 18 months old, because my nan couldn’t babysit on that occasion. From the age of five, I was at every home game.
“I knew they were going to win in 1997 when I met Pele that day at Wembley. I jumped off the coach into the middle of 12 to 14 blokes in suits. I looked around and Pele was right there. I shook his hand and he said, ‘Have a great game, Son’.”
Robinson also had a period working as a tour guide at his beloved Stamford Bridge, but it is his career as a coach across London at AFC Wimbledon which got him his dream job last summer. For 17 years he worked in Wimbledon’s youth programme, including as their academy manager, before a spell in charge of their senior team in League One from January 2021 to March 2022.
The 56-year-old is now in charge of a team who were nearly relegated last season, back when their age category was still classified as under-23s.
This season, as Chelsea Under-21s, they haven’t lost in Premier League 2 since August. Sunday’s 4-2 win away to neighbours Fulham put them on top of the table.
“There was a lot of great work I inherited,” Robinson says. “I spoke to Andy Myers (Chelsea Under-23s coach for the last three seasons, and now the club’s loan players technical coach) and he gave me insight. They had a very young side in the under-23s last season; that was a big reason for their league position, but those players learned from that experience.
“However, when there is a dip in confidence it becomes difficult, it is a mental thing. That was at the forefront of my mind: how to get these lads confident again, if anything. But also helping them realize what they’d gone through was still invaluable.
“The training intensity has been through the roof. Every session we do, we ask ourselves, ‘Does it look like the game?’. I see no relevance in doing sessions unless it looks like the game or it’s developing players to play the game.”
Casadei, who turned 20 this month, was signed from Inter Milan last summer for an initial £13.1million. Hutchinson, a 19-year-old who has made two first-team appearances this month, arrived as a free agent from arsenal in the same window but is on a very high salary for this level — better money, Robinson says, than first-teamers he worked with at AFC Wimbledon made.
Such investment helps, but also brings challenges.
“There’s pressure working with the age group just below the first team, but it’s great pressure,” Robinson says. “If you don’t enjoy this pressure, you shouldn’t be doing the job.
“Generally, they (Chelsea Under-21s) are paid considerably more than players I’ve worked with up ’til now. At Wimbledon, I was dealing with academy players that weren’t massively wanted. They’d either been rejected or thought not to be good enough. It was then a case of coaching them to get them to a level where they could get contracts.”
Robinson’s ability to improve players is illustrated by the money Wimbledon have begun earning through player sales.
Last summer, one of the players he helped develop, 21-year-old midfielder Jack Rudoniwas bought by Huddersfield Town of the Championship for £800,000. That fee is set to be bettered in the current window with the club-record sale of another academy graduate in Ayoub Assal, now 21, for over £1million at Qatari club Al-Wakrah.
Robinson was the manager who gave Assal his chance in the first team when others at the club had doubts about his ability.
Now, he is working in a world where players have agents, as well as their parents, telling them how good they are, but he says it isn’t an issue at Chelsea.
“Even though the standard is different, the Chelsea players are still human beings and there isn’t much of a difference between how you speak to them,” Robinson says. “We talk to the players about having a ‘we, not ‘me’ culture. There was an interview with Bruno Fernandes recently (after Manchester United’s win over Manchester City last weekend) and Fernandes said months ago there used to be an element of selfishness (among players at United) and now they’re more of a team. So we used this as part of a talk to the boys.
“Another subject we discussed was when someone is named on the bench. It’s always like players have to show the world how disappointed they are when it happens. But I’m telling them they don’t. Of course they’re disappointed, but they still have a job to do. That kind of stuff takes time to get across because they feel they have to look a certain way, otherwise people think they don’t care. But it shouldn’t be like that.”
Occasionally, the Chelsea fan that’s in his DNA will be on display.
Trying to show his players how to perform a scoop pass recently, Robinson dusted off a clip of one of the heroes he had idolized from the stands: Pat Nevin.
In it, Nevin performs the trick during a Chelsea game in the 1980s, and while the obvious age of the footage provoked a bit of teasing from his youngsters, no one was left in any doubt how passionate their manager is about the club.
Everyone gets nervous when they go for a job interview.
So imagine how Robinson felt not only going for a position at the club he has supported all his life and having to pitch to two Chelsea legends.
The takeover by the Todd Boehly-Clearlake consortium last summer was about to be completed, which meant the club could put plans in place to start hiring new people after being prevented from doing so by UK government sanctions related to Roman Abramovich after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Robinson was invited to make a presentation to Thomas Tuchel, head coach at the time, and the club’s technical and performance advisor Petr Cech. Both had won the Champions League with Chelsea.
“Neil rang me and said I’d have to present to Thomas, Petr and him,” Robinson explains. “The butterflies really started then.
“I think I had a week to get something together. My IT skills are really poor, so I rang a couple of colleagues at Wimbledon to help. They put it on a memory stick for me. I was possibly just as nervous about making the equipment work on my own as the actual interview.
“When Thomas came in, he was great. He relaxed me. He was very friendly, which put me at ease. He had a bit of a laugh saying, ‘It’s been a long season, so if you can keep it to an hour that would be great’. I think it was an hour and two minutes, so I think that helped my cause. I told myself beforehand, ‘This is it. Don’t be safe. Go for it’.
“I talked about culture development, but it also included clips of training at Wimbledon and games, talking through them. To do that in front of two Champions League winners was a bit intimidating, but it’s still football. I had to forget what they’d done in their careers and show them. Thomas was very good afterwards, I got a good feeling he’d enjoyed what I’d shown him.”
Two clubs had already offered Robinson a job in their academies and he was on a three-man shortlist to become a manager at another League One side. But once Bath delivered the good news, he didn’t think twice about saying yes.
Robinson has a close bond with Bath, now director of football development and operations, and Jim Fraser, who has been upgraded to head of youth development. There are others he leans on at Chelsea, including head of performance Simon Jones, but it is a bond outside of the club’s training complex in Cobham, south of London, which really put him in the right mindset to go for his current job.
When Robinson was sacked as Wimbledon manager late last season, it was devastating.
The previous year he had kept them up, finishing 19th of 24, after taking over when they were in the third division’s relegation zone. Wimbledon then began 2021-22 well — they were the top goalscorers in the country, in the play-off places and through to the third round of the League Cup for the first time in their brief history.
But bad luck with injuries, plus the club’s decision to sell top scorer Ollie Palmer to non-League Wrexham in the January led to a dramatic loss of form. With the club in relegation trouble again, Robinson was dismissed with seven games to go. It hit him hard.
“It still affects me now,” Robinson says. “Even though things are going well at Chelsea, I still have moments where I revisit. It’s natural. It’s the first time I have ever lost a job. It is the hardest thing I’ve had to cope with in my career and, apart from losing my parents, my life too.
“It was my first experience of failure, and even though there were reasons for it, you still go through that feeling of failure. You cant stop yourself thinking about it. It affects you mentally.
“It’s not something that goes away just like that. Obviously, I fell in love with AFC Wimbledon over 18 years, it’s a great club with fantastic people there. Being there for so long meant I knew about 30 percent of the fanbase and I wanted to give them so many happy times. They deserved it.
“It was more than just a job for me, it was personal. So when it went wrong, it was really painful.”
Robinson found someone who could help.
He was introduced to Rebecca Ahmed, who specializes in talking to businesses and their employees about career development.
“It started with a chat and then I just found the things she said fascinating,” Robinson says. “I would ring her once a week to talk through my thoughts, how I was feeling. She made me recognize the feelings I had were natural. Like any relationship you leave, there is a healing process.
“She’d give me little tasks. Like focusing on the good things I did, the good results, the 17 years building an academy from scratch, the fact I wouldn’t be getting this opportunity at Chelsea if I hadn’t done a good job before.
“I speak to her about once a month. I have Simon (Jones), too.
“I will have some moments where I have to check myself and get going again. It’s not even been a year since it happened. But I am in a good place in my mind and loving what I am doing.”
He isn’t the only one.
(Top photo: Clive Howes, Chelsea FC via Getty Images)