Lead Coach Dmitri Halajko sees West Ham United's development squad’s first competitive loss of the season as an opportunity to improve their game.
West Ham U21s excelled in the first half against Cheltenham Town on Tuesday evening, racing into a 3-1 lead at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium through two Dan Kemp finishes and a Bernardo Rosa rocket.
They would ultimately fall to defeat in their second Leasing.com Trophy group stage fixture, however, as their hosts exploited greater physicality to strike three times themselves in the second period.
With Cheltenham enjoying one of the better records in League Two this season, Halajko admitted afterwards he had anticipated a tough test – but also expressed pride at his players’ ability to compete at that level.
“I thought it was a real tough game - we knew it would be - that we were always in,” Halajko reflected.
“We knew we always had a chance of competing, and maybe getting a result; it’s what we came here to do. Then bits of naivety and poor defending at times cost us the result.
“We haven’t managed to hold on to our lead, and we turned the ball over a bit quickly at times, so it wasn’t our best performance. Hopefully [it was] a night that we’ll learn lots and lots from.”
We were trying to patch up the back four, which was always going to be tough against a team of Cheltenham's quality.
In addition to the challenging prospect of in-form Football League opposition, West Ham went into the game without regular defenders Gonçalo Cardoso and Jamal Baptiste, away on international duty.
Reece Hannam and Iyiola Adebayo were paired at the heart of defence – the latter making his first appearance at U21 level – but luck was not on their side, both players forced to leave the field early due to injury.
Halajko said: “Our two centre halves who’ve played there in the last couple of games are away on international duty, so it was a chance to look at two other lads in there.
“Unfortunately for them they’ve both got quite bad injuries. Their night didn’t really go according to plan. From that moment, we were trying to patch up the back four, which was always going to be tough against a team of Cheltenham’s quality.”
While the Hammers can feel rueful to have lost an entertaining game 4-3 – ending their 16-match unbeaten streak under Halajko – their Lead Coach was buoyed by their attitude throughout.
“A little bit of their experience, and good play, and a little bit of our naivety [made the difference],” he admitted.
“We were a little bit poorer on the ball today than what we wanted to be. We wanted to control it a little bit more than we did, but we still had chances at the end. We kept going and kept going, and still had three good chances at the end to try and get something from the game.”
West Ham United U23s return to Premier League 2 Division 2 action at Stoke’s bet365 Stadium on Monday 21 October.