U18s duo target overall title

Steve Potts and assistant Mark Phillips hailed West Ham United's youngsters after they won through to the Barclays U18 Premier League Play-Offs.

The Hammers ensured runners-up spot in the Southern Division with a 1-1 home draw with Arsenal on Saturday, setting up a semi-final clash at Northern Division winners Manchester City later this week.

Having secured a top-two finish after Kieran Bywater's early penalty was cancelled out by Ainsley Maitland-Niles' second-half equaliser, Potts and Phillips are now targeting a memorable end to the 2013/14 campaign.

"I thought it was a good result for us, but it was a tough test at times," said U18s boss Potts. "Both teams played really well but I thought that, in the first half, we were the much better team.

"We had several chances to go further ahead and perhaps make the second half more comfortable for us, but we only led by 1-0 at half-time. That gave Arsenal an incentive in the second half and they came out very strong, so we had to dig deep and hold on.

"In the second half, our players were getting tired because Arsenal were getting a lot of the ball and making us work hard."

Assistant manager Phillips added: "It was a game of two halves but I think the Arsenal coaching staff got stuck into the players at half-time. They brought an England full-back on that made a difference and they did overrun us in the second half.

"Saying that, goals change games and in the second half, Jaanai Gordon had a great chance when he went through one on one but their keeper made a fantastic save, which then allowed Arsenal to go up the other end and make it 1-1. It's those little things that can make the difference at the end of the day."

Prior to kick-off, the Hammers knew that they needed a single point to confirm their place in the Play-Offs and Bywater's sixth-minute spot-kick duly secured it.

"We said before the game that if we got through this game against Arsenal with a result then we would be there against Manchester City, which will be a tough test for the lads," confirmed Potts. "That's what we want from the boys, though. We want them to be tested and come through games getting results.

Phillips added: "It's slightly unfair on Arsenal to call them a dress rehearsal but this was a hard test for us. Manchester City will be another tough game and, if we play well enough and make the final, it will be a third tough match that we will have to be up for."

The management duo took reflected on the youth team's progression throughout the season, believing that their squad deserves a chance at a glorious end to the season.

Potts said: "I thought that at the start of the season that we were playing some great football without getting the results to match. Then, a few things changed with the boys and they got more ruthless in front of goal and we started getting the results we deserved.

"We were scoring goals, but also defending solidly which gave us a good ground to work on, which is why I think we ended up in the top two.

"This season, all of the players have progressed as players in their own ways. Quite a few have stepped up to the Development Squad which is the main goal that we are looking for, with Reece [Burke] even getting a crack at the first team [against Nottingham Forest]. That's the whole purpose of why we are here and that's exactly what we are looking for."

Phillips continued: "We had two good runs this season, one near the first half of the season and then we lost at Southampton and started another good run of results.

"I know that plenty of other managers and coaches like to talk about the team spirit at their club but for us, we really have got a great group of players that will all work hard for each other.

"It's not all about winning matches and tournaments because we are looking for the players to be pushing on to the next level. For example, we have had quite a number of players featuring for the Development Squad this season which will help them as they progress naturally to that level over the next few years."

Having been knocked out of the FA Youth Cup at the third-round stage at Accrington Stanley, the Hammers return to the North West with a second chance at lifting a piece of silverware this term.

Potts added: "I said to the boys after the Arsenal game that I fully believe that they deserve a crack at a big game. The FA Youth Cup was a total disappointment for everyone because it took away that chance of a big game to end the season, although from what they have shown this season, this could be a second chance at a big game.

"We all come in every day with the sole aim of improving these boys as footballers. Individually and as a team, I think the lads have improved massively. Obviously we can't stop there because they are still quite far away from where they want to be so we need to just keep continuing the hard work.

"It's not just about the coaching staff, though, as we have a number of people in different roles who all contribute to the job every day. We have our own sports scientist, physiotherapists, drivers and kit man who have all been excellent this season."

West Ham's progress this season at U18 level is testament to the hard work which has gone on behind the scenes at Rush Green and Little Heath, where the Club's promising schoolboys and scholars are given every opportunity to better themselves as both players and people.

Phillips added: "We have set up a good learning environment for the boys and we see every day that the players are buying into what we want to do for their careers. At the end of the day, it's not benefiting Steve and I because we are here only to help them progress as footballers."

Should West Ham win at Manchester City, they will face either Southern champions Tottenham Hotspur or Northern runners-up Everton in the final.

Details of where and when the semi-final at Manchester City will be played will be announced shortly.

U18s: Howes, Knoyle, Burke, Onariase, Mavila, Pask, Nasha (Cullen), Makasi, Bywater, J.Brown (Amoo), Parfitt-Williams (Gordon)
Subs not used:
T.Brown, Martins, Pike