Dmitri Halajko: Under-21s should be proud of win over Portsmouth
West Ham United Under-21s secured a memorable Papa John’s Trophy group stage victory on Tuesday night, defeating Portsmouth 1-0 at Fratton Park.
Pompey went into the game having won the last two editions of the tournament and having not lost a game in the competition within 90 minutes in 1,036 days; with last season’s final still to be played, the last team to defeat them were Chelsea U21s in January 2018.
With both sides having already secured progression to the knockout stages, both teas had the opportunity at Fratton Park to secure top spot in Group A of the southern section and therefore guarantee a seeded home draw in the first knockout round.
It didn’t take long for West Ham U21s to pull ahead, however. After just four minutes, Kai Corbett sweeped in Emmanuel Longelo’s excellent pull-back to put the Hammers in the lead.
What followed was a composed, mature and resolute cup performance, with West Ham restricting a Portsmouth side of various experiences to just two clear chances; the first requiring a fine Nathan Trott save with his feet, the second a hooked volley which narrowly cleared the bar.
Lead coach Dmitri Halajko was therefore delighted to see his side put in such a sturdy performance against high-profile opposition, coming away with a result in the process.
“It was really nice to get a clean sheet, first and foremost,” Halajko told whufc.com.
“We haven’t had many of those this season and we’ve been frustrated in games that we’ve given teams really soft goals, or made really bad mistakes, that we’ve had to try and fight back from.
“The most pleasing thing about today was we had a really clean game, gave them limited chances and that gives us a good platform to then go and get a result. We were very pleased with what we were out of possession today.
“It’s a great place for the lads to come and play football and a great team for them to come up against. It’s probably the biggest team that most of them have played against, so to come and get a result is something to be proud of.
“Portsmouth were a little bit younger than usual today, which has played a part in it, but any Portsmouth team is going to be a good team so we knew it was going to be a tough one and we just edged it. I think we deserved to just edge it.”
Tuesday’s excellent result complements similar performances from the development squad up against senior Football League opposition this season.
We’re looking for individuals to improve and develop and I think you can see the progression in some of the players from last year into this year
League Two sides Southend United and Colchester United both struggled to break down industrious West Ham teams at home earlier in the group, with the boys in Claret and Blue winning out 3-1 and 1-0 respectively.
One goal conceded, five scored, and nine points out of nine are all figures which mark a fine return from Group A for the Academy of Football side.
“It’s a great run,” Halajko admitted. “We’ve achieved from the group stage what we wanted to achieve, which was to top the group. It’s one of their goals ticked off for this season.
“It’s a good achievement for both the squad and individuals. A lot of individuals have improved their performances in this year’s competition compared to last year’s, so that’s a plus.
“We’re looking for individuals to improve and develop and I think you can see the progression in some of the players from last year into this year.”
As for how far the U21s could go in the competition, Halajko believes his young charges will embrace whatever challenge they come up against next.
He added: “The lads will just look at the next game and do the best they can in that.
“The best thing about it is that we’ve managed to get another game. Hopefully we can get another one. The more chances we get to play in this competition, the more chances we get to develop.
“These fixtures are some of the best ones we get, so any games we can play are a massive bonus. The only way we can get more is by winning more, so that’s a real incentive.”