Footballers spend their careers fighting for the big occasions.
For any Academy footballer, a Premier League International Cup quarter-final certainly falls into that category.
After qualifying for this stage for the first time in the competition’s six-year history, West Ham United U23s have been handed a tricky tie away to Derby County, currently fourth in the top tier of Premier League 2 – making them the highest-ranked English side remaining.
A quarter-final in the Premier League international Cup, a European competition, is a great occasion
Yet with the Hammers still unbeaten in Division 2 and chasing league and cup glory of their own, U23s Lead Coach Halajko believes the prospect will inspire, rather than faze, his squad, as they look to claim a memorable win at Pride Park.
“A really big game,” he smiled. “A quarter-final in the Premier League international Cup, a European competition, is a great occasion.
“Playing at another first-team stadium, Pride Park, against a team that’s doing extremely well in the league above, is a big match and we can’t wait for it.
“Derby have got a really good crop of young players at the moment. They’re in the top four of the league above, and also their U19s have qualified for the last 16 of the UEFA Youth League, so they’ve got a real good crop there.
“It’s going to be, quite possibly, the toughest game we’ve had all year.”
As well as their success in European competition, Derby’s Academy – transformed by the arrival of Darren Wassall over a decade ago – has both U23s and U18s alike fighting for top-four finishes in their respective leagues.
Their U23s, led by Wassall, could also feature a familiar face to many in Claret and Blue; leading scorer Jahmal Hector-Ingram, with 16 goals so far this campaign, departed east London only last summer.
Despite patchy league form in recent weeks – the Rams have won only one of their last nine league games – their last cup game was an emphatic 6-0 win at home to Middlesbrough U23s in the Premier League Cup on Saturday.
Nevertheless, Halajko’s Hammers are unbeaten in their league season so far, have suffered only two domestic losses all season – both to senior opposition in the EFL Trophy – and also won their previous game, a convincing 4-0 victory over Norwich last week.
We always go to try and dominate and win every game, to try and be on the front foot for every game, so we’ll certainly attack the game
After beating Valencia ‘B’ 1-0 in their group stage opener, West Ham U23s have also demonstrated their ability to see off higher-ranked competition, defeating Division 1 side Brighton & Hove Albion 3-1 to advance as one of the best second-placed sides in the first round.
Should they make it through on Tuesday evening, a semi-final awaits against Arsenal, who defeated AS Monaco 4-3 in dramatic circumstances last week.
Although the prize is great, Halajko has called on his side to simply go out at Derby and play their own game.
“It’s a different type of test for sure,” he explained. “We have to go there and get a result.
“We always go to try and dominate and win every game, to try and be on the front foot for every game, so we’ll certainly attack the game. We wouldn’t attack it any other way.
“Hopefully, we’ll be going there to get through to the semi-finals.”
West Ham United U23s’ Premier League International Cup quarter-final against Derby County kicks off at Pride Park at 7pm on Tuesday 10 March. You can follow all the action through whufc.com's live blog from 6pm.
They will subsequently return to Premier League 2 Division 2 action against Swansea City at London Stadium on Monday 16 March, with kick-off 7pm. Tickets are free for Season Ticket Holders and Claret Members. For non-members, they are priced at £5 for Adults and £3 for Over-65s/Under-21s. Click here to book.