Dmitri Halajko: U23s got the win they deserved in the end
West Ham United U23s Lead Coach Dmitri Halajko is delighted his players received just reward for a superb display against Derby County on Tuesday evening – particularly after winning out in the lottery of extra time and penalties.
The U23s attacked their first-ever Premier League International Cup quarter-final in some style, racing into a two-goal lead at Pride Park after just eight minutes – Oladapo Afolayan putting the finishing touches to two excellent flowing moves.
The Rams hauled themselves back into the contest with goals either side of half-time – the first a contentious penalty scored by Jahmal Hector-Ingram, the second a header by Jordan Brown from a near-post corner.
West Ham kicked on and took the lead again through Bernardo Rosa but, with seven minutes to play, Hector-Ingram struck again from close range – forcing extra time and, after 30 goalless further minutes, penalties.
The Hammers had another set back after Alfie Lewis was unlucky to pick up a second yellow card on the stroke of full-time, requiring them to hold out for extra time with ten men.
Then, deep into sudden death, Anang made his second stop of the shoot-out, plunging on Tyree Wilson’s penalty kick to win the shoot-out in dramatic circumstances – 6-5, after 16 kicks taken.
“I thought we got what we deserved in the end,” Halajko told whufc.com. “It took a long time to get there, but we were the better team really.
“We started very, very well – two up early – and then I didn’t think it was a penalty, [the one] which got them back in the game. We were disappointed to concede from a set-piece, then they came back into it [from one behind] again, and then we had a player sent off, so I think we had everything really go against us – losing a player [Afolayan, to injury] also.
“Then we got through to extra time and grinding it out, and we finally got we deserved when we got to penalties.”
Halajko’s Hammers have a remarkable habit this season of, when the going gets tough, only getting tougher.
They don’t shy away from any challenges and we encourage them to push forwards and take every opportunity and not wait for it to happen, and it’s another one tonight
Another strong performance – amongst their plethora in challenging circumstances this season – ensured progression at Pride Park and sets up a Premier League International Cup semi-final against Arsenal, another Premier League 2 Division 1 side.
“They’re a really tight group and work really hard. They want to do well,” Halajko explained. “They’re.a hard-working group of lads and when a challenge comes, they want to rise to it and do well.
“They don’t shy away from any challenges and we encourage them to push forwards and take every opportunity and not wait for it to happen, and it’s another one tonight where they’ve really attacked it.”
After speaking of the need for more intensity from the off following their 4-0 victory over Norwich U23s last week, Halajko was pleased to see his team race out of the blocks with such vivacity – but also quality – on Tuesday night.
“It was a great start, and I think both goals were real high-quality goals where we’ve played our whole way through the pitch,” he observed.
“We’ve played passing football through the thirds and finished off lovely moves, so to score two quick goals, but also in the style of football we want to play, putting two moves together like that in the first ten minutes, was really pleasing.”
As Premier League 2 Division 2 leaders – West Ham U23s maintain a three-point advantage at the top of the league, with just four games left to play – a repeat trip to Derby could well be on the cards next season.
It shows the level we’re at, and I think we can match anyone really from what we’ve seen
Having also beaten Division 1 opposition in Brighton in the Cup this season, Halajko believes Tuesday night’s game was further evidence of their top-flight credentials.
He said: “In this competition we’ve played Brighton and Derby now, both third and fourth from the league above and I think, in both of those performances, we’ve deserved to win the games. That bodes well.
“It shows the level we’re at, and I think we can match anyone really from what we’ve seen. It shows we can more than compete in the league we’re in, and it shows we could compete in the league above also – as well as the Cup going forwards.”
West Ham United U23s 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.