West Ham United U21s lead coach Dmitri Halajko saw cause for optimism in the nature of his young side’s defeat to Peterborough United on Tuesday evening.
The young Hammers came into the Papa John’s Trophy second-round clash at the Weston Homes Stadium looking to cause an upset against the League One promotion chasers, who had a number of experienced senior professionals in their starting line-up.
In a tight game of narrow margins, Halajko’s team went toe-to-toe with Darren Ferguson’s Posh side and matched them in the first half, coming close to taking the lead on several occasions.
The hosts’ greater experience eventually told in the second period, however, once Mo Eisa tapped in from close range to give them the lead just shy of the hour mark.
As the visitors pressed forwards for an equaliser, Peterborough began to pick West Ham off and eventually scored twice more through Serhat Tasdemir and Eisa again to seal progression into the third round.
For West Ham’s U21s, the defeat brought to an end an impressive run in the Papa John’s Trophy this season, where three group stage games brought about three victories at the stadia of senior Football League opposition.
In that way, although Halajko was disappointed his team did not progress on Tuesday, he was pleased they have experienced the developmental benefits of the competition.
“The first half, I thought, was a close game,” he told whufc.com.
“I thought we maybe edged it – we had the better chances and were certainly in the game. We wanted to then go out and improve on that in the second half, which unfortunately we didn’t manage to do.
“Our second-half performance wasn’t really what we were aiming for and they were better than us in the second half. Because of that, Peterborough probably deserved to win it.
“It’s a great competition from our point of view. Development-wise, for our young players, it does more than any other game of football we can play at our level, so we love the competition and we love being part of it.
“We wanted to go further, but unfortunately it was not to be this year.”
In rainswept conditions on a wintery night at the Weston Homes Stadium, a physical first 45 minutes saw the Hammers forced to make substitutions shortly before – and then during – the half-time break.
It was great to have him [Nathan Holland] back on the pitch and he deserves it. Nine months without playing is a long time – it’s great to have him back out there
Halajko believes that could have been a key factor in allowing Peterborough to establish the early control in the second half which ultimately proved decisive.
“We had to make a couple of changes, forced upon us, which didn’t necessarily go our way,” Halajko recalled.
“That can sometimes unsettle a team. It took us a little while to settle in the second half and we didn’t really get a grip on the first 15 or 20 minutes. After that, we were always trying to scrap our way back into it.
“The start of that second half didn’t really help us and then we were 1-0 down, so we were chasing the game. While we were chasing it, there were gaps at the back for Peterborough to find – which to their credit, they did.”
One big positive for the Academy of Football on Tuesday evening was the return to action of forward Nathan Holland after a nine-month spell out with injury.
Named Young Hammer of the Year for his breakthrough campaign in Claret and Blue last season, Holland’s last match-day minutes were in March in the colours of Oxford United, where he enjoyed a brief but impressive stint on loan.
Having seen Holland play the first 45 minutes at the Weston Homes Stadium – his first match in a West Ham shirt since 6 January – Halajko was delighted that the skilful winger is nearing the end of a challenging spell on the sidelines.
He said: “It’s been nine months since Nathan Holland played his last game of football, so it’s been a long, hard road to recovery for him.
“Fair play to him for working so hard on his rehabilitation to get himself back to playing, because I know it’s been tough.
“It was great to have him back on the pitch and he deserves it. Nine months without playing is a long time – it’s great to have him back out there.”