Antonee Robinson says he will return to Everton a “much better” player following a season with Bolton Wanderers which climaxed in “unreal” fashion.
Bolton were staring relegation in the face when they trailed Nottingham Forest 2-1 with four minutes remaining of their final Championship match of the campaign.
But after defender David Wheater forced in an equaliser, Aaron Wilbraham stooped to head the goal which relegated Barnsley and Burton Albion and kept the Lancashire side in the second tier.
Academy graduate Robinson, an Under-23 Premier League 2 title winner with Everton last term, played 30 Championship games in his debut senior campaign and insists next season will be “the biggest of my life”.
But he admits Sunday’s dramatic finale with Bolton ranks as the high point of his embryonic career. Phil Parkinson’s side needed to beat Forest and rely on play-off chasing pair Derby County and Preston North End overcoming Barnsley and Burton respectively.
“The fans created a massive atmosphere – the best of any game we have had all season,” Robinson told evertonfc.com. “It was a rollercoaster of emotions, going from being safe to down and then back up again. It was incredible.
“I always thought we had a really good chance and that if we won the other results would take care of themselves.
“It was unreal when the winner went in. We still had a few minutes to play and, having gone 1-0 up and conceded twice in quick succession, I was saying to the lads, ‘We need to stay solid here and not concede’. It was nerve-wracking but everyone was at it.
"None of us can believe it happened. It was probably the highlight of my career.
“We knew we had to keep our heads and stay in it after going behind – and that it could go to the last minute.
“We never lost our belief, we just knew we had to give it a massive push. We had to do it the hard way, which was not fun.
“But we all knew we had a chance. There was no point moping about and sulking. It was us who had to make the change on the pitch and it went well.”
Robinson had to wait one month for his Bolton debut after joining in August and was pitched into a team in the midst of a difficult run of form.
He steadily established himself in Parkinson’s side, switching between roles at left-back and on the left of midfield, as a rejuvenated Bolton – who had claimed only two points from their opening 11 fixtures – found their feet in the Championship following promotion from League One.
“I did not play as much as I would have liked at the start of the season and that was difficult but I needed to be ready when I was put in the team and I took my chance,” said Robinson.
“I am not sure I was comfortable straightway. In my first couple of games I made some little errors because of my lack of experience.
“I would find myself in positions that could cost us goals and was thinking, ‘I need to get my act together soon’.
“But the older players help you, they recognise it and help you iron out your mistakes. I learned progressively, became more comfortable and grew in confidence.
“I did well and feel like I have developed as a player and established a minimum level I can play at. I would definitely say I am a much better player than I was at the start of the season.
"I have all that experience under my belt and have learned a lot more about the game. Now I want to improve and kick on.”
Robinson’s consistently excellent form in the second half of the campaign was recognised by interim USA manager Dave Sarachan, who included the defender in his squad for a friendly against Paraguay in North Carolina back in March.
The player’s previous international experience was limited to one cap at Under-18 level for America – the country of his father’s birth.
He did not feature in the States' 1-0 victory but is hopeful of being selected again for forthcoming friendly encounters with Bolivia, Republic of Ireland and France.
And after witnessing Jonjoe Kenny and Beni Baningime become the latest Toffees youngsters to make their mark on the Club's first team this season, Robinson’s longer-term sights are set on following his fellow Academy products into manager Sam Allardyce’s plans.
“There is nothing better than seeing your mates do well, people you have grown up with and played with as a kid,” said Robinson.
“I am really happy to see Jonjoe and Beni doing so well. It shows that you get your rewards for working hard. They have done it and, hopefully, there will be a chance for me to do it when I come back.
“Next season will be the biggest of my life, whatever happens. Whether I break through at Everton or go on loan again to get more experience before my time comes.
“But I do believe if I work hard enough there is a chance for me to get in the first team at Everton. However they want me to do that, I am willing to give it my all.
“The international call was really surprising. I did not expect to make that jump from Under-18s to first team in such a short time.
“It felt like a reward for all the hard work I have done all season and I was really excited and looking forward to the challenge.
“It was completely different from anything I had ever experienced before. There were so many good players there – and America obviously has a large pool to choose from, so the fact I was chosen for that camp meant a lot to me.
“It showed I have a real chance with them and they must see something in me. The USA have a few games in the summer. I am hoping I will be called up for them and have the chance to play an international game, so I will tick over in the gym and keep myself fit just in case.”