Despite Wednesday’s game ultimately ending in defeat, Jeremy Ngakia, now a West Ham United first-team and Premier League defender, enjoyed a night he will never forget.
After impressing in six Premier League 2 Division 2 appearances so far this season, the promising 19-year-old full-back had been named in manager David Moyes’ three previous first-team matchday squads, without making it onto the field.
It just feels amazing that it’s finally come and my hard work is paying off, but I’ve got to continue from here. This is just the start
If Ngakia were therefore nervous upon being named in the starting eleven against league leaders Liverpool – a game he will now forever recall as his professional debut – he didn’t show it.
The full-back admitted afterwards that, rather than carry nerves into the occasion, he saw it as an opportunity to display what his game is all about to manager and supporters alike.
“It feels unreal,” he told West Ham TV. “I want to thank the manager for giving me the opportunity to even step on the pitch.
“I got told today, literally today, that I was going to play, I was going to start. I didn’t feel nervous at all because this is what I’ve wanted my whole life, all I’ve worked for.
“It just feels amazing that it’s finally come and my hard work is paying off, but I’ve got to continue from here. This is just the start.”
True to his words, Ngakia’s performance was bright and positive on his first senior appearance in Claret and Blue, helping sustain a defensive line while pushing forwards from the right flank to cause the league leaders some consternation.
After only debuting at U23 level two years ago, the teenager’s rapid rise to such a grand occasion is all the more remarkable when put into the wider context of his season so far.
Having picked up an injury in an early-season friendly against Brentford ‘B’ in August, Ngakia was out of action for most of the first half of the U23s’ campaign.
It’s what I dreamed of doing as a child. I remember watching Match of the Day all the time, and now I’m there. It’s amazing
Yet a handful of Premier League 2 Division 2 appearances later, and regular involvement with first-team training under the watchful eye of manager Moyes, Ngakia’s moment arrived on Wednesday.
“It feels unreal, but I worked hard in the gym when I was injured,” he explained. “It made me even more hungry so in a way, it was good that happened to me. I believe that everything happens for a reason.
“It’s what I dreamed of doing as a child. I remember watching Match of the Day all the time, and now I’m there. It’s amazing.
“Now, I just want to try my best to impress the manager, and make it hard to pick other players. Obviously we’re a team and we want to do well, so we’ve just got to continue from here.”
While the Hammers would ultimately fall to goals either side of half-time from Mohamed Salah and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ngakia’s energy in attack played a large part in several sustained spells of pressure which could have seen them equalise or, in the first half, even equalise.
“We were unlucky with our chances, especially in the second half,” he noted. “We weren’t far away, but we stuck together as a team and we tried our best.
“Maybe on another day, we’ll have that luck, but I can’t fault the team. We put maximum effort into it. We defended well and they were just lucky sometimes, but that’s how the game goes.”
Cheering the young full-back on in the 60,000-strong London Stadium crowd were Ngakia’s parents, sister and cousin, as well as a number of Academy of Football coaches crucial to his developmental journey so far.
The right-back also thanked Irons captain Mark Noble for his help in settling into the first-team setup.
“Mark has helped me a lot and made me feel comfortable,” he said. “He makes me feel even more confident and makes me play my own game.
“I’d also like to thank everyone at the Academy for helping me my whole way to where I am now, and also my family, who have always stuck with me and believed in me. I just want to make them happy as well.”