Dmitri Halajko: Under-23s hoping for another quality match at Derby
To many a football supporter, it might seem worlds away now.
But few of those present at Pride Park on the eve of Tuesday 10 March 2020 will forget the events which unfolded.
West Ham United Under-23s’ last game before the 2019/20 season was suspended – and the Academy Games Programme ultimately curtailed – was also the first Premier League International Cup quarter-final in the Club’s history.
Enjoying a comfortable lead at the top of Premier League 2 Division 2, the Hammers travelled to Derby County U23s – then flying high in Division 1 – for a memorable match in March befitting the occasion.
Lead coach Dmitri Halajko’s young Hammers came flying out of the blocks from kick-off, attacking at electrifying pace and racing into a two-goal lead after just eight minutes – both excellent finishes from forward Oladapo Afolayan.
True to form, however, Derby hit back either side of half-time to level matters, before the two teams once again exchanged goals before the full-time whistle – Bernardo Rosa the third close-range goalscorer for West Ham.
Despite Halajko's team being reduced to ten men in injury time, 30 draining minutes of extra-time concluded with no further goals, before no fewer than 16 penalties were taken in a shoot-out settled in West Ham’s favour.
While global events did not afford the young Hammers a subsequent semi-final, their 2019/20 league placing did grant them a return to the top-flight of Premier League 2 at the first time of asking.
There, on Monday evening, they will be reunited domestically with Derby County – 237 days after such a highlight in many of the young players’ careers.
“Last time we played them, it was really close,” Halajko recalled. “It was a game that swung in terms of momentum – from us to them, us to them. It was high-scoring, heavily attacking, and a really good, quality game.
“We’ll be hoping for another good quality game, and it’d be nice to get the same outcome as last time, which was a win for us.”
West Ham U23s go into the game still seeking their first win of the Premier League 2 season, despite some outstanding performances in the EFL Trophy against senior Football League opposition.
Last time out, the Irons produced a solid if unspectacular performance against a rigid Blackburn Rovers side, a 0-0 deadlock forcing both teams to settle for a point.
If we can get another clean sheet, and tactically we’re just as good off the ball, it always gives us a chance – we have something to build on
Derby County U23s, meanwhile, have ten points from their opening six games of the season following a relatively strong start to 2020/21.
Halajko feels his players, therefore, will need to up their game in order to come away from Monday night’s trip to the Midlands with victory.
He reflected: “I think defensively and tactically we were sound against Blackburn. If we can get another clean sheet, and tactically we’re just as good off the ball, it always gives us a chance – we have something to build on.
“We will need to improve on the ball and we will need to get our passing game back. We’ll certainly need to improve our quality in the final third, so we’ll be looking to do that against Derby.”
West Ham United Under-23s take on Derby County Under-23s on Monday 2 November in a behind-closed-doors fixture. Kick-off is at 7pm; you can follow all the action with our live blog on whufc.com from 6.30pm.
Please note that all Academy fixtures will be played behind closed doors until further notice. Only key personnel will be admitted on site and matches will be played without supporters present, in line with safety guidelines and social distancing measures still in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.