Big week for U18s

West Ham United's Under-18s start 2012 with two blockbusting fixtures against Chelsea and Brighton and Hove Albion.

The Hammers travel to Cobham for their opening FA Premier Academy League fixture of the year to face the Blues on Saturday before hosting the Seagulls in the FA Youth Cup fourth round at the Boleyn Ground. Should West Ham defeat Brightonon Wednesday evening, they will travel to either Chelsea or Norwich City in the fifth round.

Speaking exclusively to the official website, U18s coach Nick Haycock said the squad are rested and ready ahead of two high-profile fixtures.

Nick, the boys are back after a few days off over Christmas and the New Year. Are they in good spirits ahead of their big upcoming matches against Chelsea and Brighton and Hove Albion?

"Pre-Christmas we had quite a few long-term injuries and with boys being promoted to the first-team squad, it has left the squad quite light. The break came at a good time for us.

"Some of the boys have been coming in and doing bits and pieces with the first team and development squad over Christmas just to keep fresh, but the rest came at a key time for them.

"We are going into the second half of the season and we start with a terrific game against Chelsea over at Cobham. It's always a tough game for both sides and is an exciting start to the New Year leading up to the FA Youth Cup game against Brighton on Wednesday. Hopefully we can make a good start to the league campaign again and push on in the FA Youth Cup."

We start 2012 sitting seventh in the FA Premier Academy League Group A table, but league position is not the be all and end all is it?

"The southern division that we play in is very strong and everybody has been beating each other. Equally most clubs, if they are developing players in the right way, tend to use the league as a development tool.

"They use the league to teach their players new systems and how to play the game and put their strongest side out in the FA Youth Cup. We're no different and the main aim at the start of the season was to develop boys for the first team and get as many of them as possible playing regularly for the development squad.

"We also aim to promote as many Under-16s and Under-17s to the youth team and our overall stats are very good. We're certainly doing that. Some clubs play Under-19s down in the youth team but, aside from the goalkeepers, we tend not to do that. Sometimes injuries mean you have to use Under-19s so that the younger ones who do play up can cope and are comfortable.

"The whole process has evolved because the Gaffer [Sam Allardyce] coming in has promoted players from within. You've seen with Dan Potts and Rob Hall and possibly Jake Larkins in the near future being around the first team. All credit to the Gaffer because he has put them in, trusted them, and it's given all the boys beneath a lift.

"We say to them 'Can you play up and cope with the demands of playing against boys and men who are older than you?' and obviously the Gaffer, Macca [Neil McDonald] and Ian Hendon have got the link between the Academy, development squad and first team. They are looking at every player closely to see if they are ready.

"It's about getting the lads ready for it - Pottsy has been with the first team since day-one and that link has given the whole club a lift."


The Under-18s are preparing for a massive week in league and cup

It must have given you great pride to see Dan Potts and Rob Hall make their first-team debuts?

"Undoubtedly. I came to the club in 2005 and the first team I took was the Under-12s with Dan and Rob. I've been through the whole journey with both of them. They have always been a good side who have a lot of talent and have won a lot of games.

"We always said that they could have an unbeaten record every year, but that means nothing if we are not producing players every year. We want to win the league and FA Youth Cup, but ultimately we are achieving what we set out to do at the beginning of the season by getting players into the first team.

"We have a manager who has inspired us and that's fantastic to see."

Looking forward to next week, the boys must be relishing the prospect of taking on Brighton and Hove Albion at the Boleyn Ground in the FA Youth Cup fourth round?

"We always look forward to a lot of fans turning up to the FA Youth Cup games. I was part of the campaign last year when we played Manchester United at home and am looking to use that experience this year.

"We have cancelled the schoolboy training so they will all be coming down to watch and will see what is expected of them in the future.

"It will be great for the boys to have a crowd behind them because they do get nervous and if we're not on our 'A' game then Brighton will beat us on the night. It's not a case of a giant against a minnow - we're competing against each other for a place in the last-16.

"If we put a performance in like we did at Wolves in the last round, then we should be OK because we think we've got the quality in our side. Hopefully we go injury-free this weekend and nobody picks up any bugs and all the boys are ready.

"We've given all the boys targets for this game and for the future corresponding with the reviews conducted by the first team, so we're giving them every opportunity to progress and develop."