Oladapo Afolayan: West Ham U23s have six finals ahead of us
Every West Ham United U23s player is well aware that, entering the final stretch of the season, every kick of the ball – every accurate pass, every well-timed tackle, every crunching header – counts.
That is the view of 22-year-old striker Oladapo Afolayan, who returned from a half-season loan at Mansfield Town last month to start the U23s’ last two games, opening the scoring against Sunderland U23s a fortnight ago.
The powerful striker’s return has bolstered the U23s forward line for a potentially glorious domestic run-in in the coming months; with six league games remaining, the Hammers continue to top Premier League 2 Division 2, having done so since late September.
Nevertheless, with their advantage at the pinnacle only two points over the chasing Manchester United, Afolayan is well aware that every match matters.
“We’ve got six 'cup' finals coming up in the league, so we’re taking each game as it comes,” Afolayan declared.
“As one of the most experienced players in the group, I’m just going to try help the boys put in professional performances. We need to use all our experience and knowhow to see out games when we’re on top of the opposition.
“At this level we’ve got to be professional and get ourselves up for each and every one of our games, whether it be a friendly we had last Tuesday at Peterborough’s training ground, or a Monday evening at London Stadium.”
Afolayan refers to Monday night’s game against Stoke U23s, the first of three Premier League 2 Division 2 fixtures scheduled to take place at the home of West Ham United this season.
Indeed, in their closing six games, West Ham will play at first-team stadia in five of them – three times at London Stadium, plus away trips to Aston Villa’s Villa Park and West Brom’s The Hawthorns.
The whole evening will be such a great experience for both myself and the rest of the squad
They will also enjoy a trip to Derby County’s Pride Park next month for a Premier League International Cup quarter-final, the first time West Ham U23s have reached that stage of the competition in its six-year history.
With so much to play for, and top-class venues lined up in which to play for it, the stage is well and truly set for a memorable conclusion to the campaign.
“It’s always a good experience for the lads to play at London Stadium,” Afolayan observed, having played the full 90 minutes for West Ham U23s against Arsenal U23s at London Stadium two years ago.
“The whole evening will be such a great experience for both myself and the rest of the squad.
“I haven’t encountered Stoke too much - I’ve only played against them once and that was at my old club, Solihull Moor, in pre-season - but we're expecting them to be tough opposition, and with us currently top of the league, they’ll be well up for it as well.”
Led by former player Kevin Russell, fourth-placed Stoke U23s have produced several strong runs throughout the season and go into the game off the back of two consecutive wins with clean sheets.
For Afolayan, however, following that dramatic 4-2 turnaround at Sunderland’s Academy of Light a fortnight ago – the Hammers were trailing with ten minutes to go, but scored three excellent goals inside four minutes – confidence is flowing both personally and collectively.
“The mood in the camp has been great since that Sunderland game,” he smiled. “That was a massive result for us as a group because of how we showed great character as a collective, and that’s really helped morale.
“I was also happy to be amongst the goals, and scored two more against Peterborough last week as well. I feel like I’ve been playing well this season, especially here because [U23s Lead Coach] Dmitri [Halajko] has helped me massively since he’s come in.
“It’s been an up-and-down season for me personally, but I feel like whenever I’ve played, I’ve played well. I’ve been in good form all season. I started off well with the U23s but then didn’t get as many games as I needed when I went out on loan, so I’ve come back to get more games and enjoy my football again.”
If Afolayan can make his way onto the scoresheet again on Monday evening and the Hammers can claim another crucial three points, expect to see such enjoyment adorn the clinical striker's face once more.
West Ham United U23s against Stoke U23s kicks off at London Stadium on Monday 17 February at 7pm.
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