Dmitri Halajko: We’re happy to push our players on
Every development squad is of dual purpose.
On the one hand, results – as in any strand of football – can carry significance, settling the competitive standings of Premier League 2 and, in domestic cup competitions, the Papa John’s Trophy.
On the other, development football is also about advancing players and challenging them to push past their former limits, reaching new levels which – over a certain period of time – guide them towards becoming Premier League footballers of the future.
It is therefore much to the Academy of Football’s credit that so many of its youngsters have reached those new levels this season, with plenty of scholars – normally playing with the Under-18s – forcing their way into the Under-23s’ matchday squads.
While there are also a number of absentees through the side from injury at present, it is to every Academy footballer’s credit that the U23s have continued to perform well this season, if just lacking the luck required to secure a first Premier League 2 win of the season.
On Monday evening, the development squad hit both post and crossbar within a matter of minutes before moments later falling to a top-class solo effort from an established Premier League player – Leicester City’s Demarai Gray – in a 2-1 loss at the King Power Stadium.
The Foxes’ starting line-up on that occasion also included established Champions League players Ricardo Pereira and Islam Slimani, whereas the Hammers deployed no fewer than four youth team players over the 90 minutes.
One of the positives from Monday night is that we had three or four youth team players out there, and they were getting to play up against Premier League players
Despite the disappointment of Gray’s late winner, U23s lead coach Dmitri Halajko was pleased to help his young players push on and step up to the next level.
It is a promising trend which continues to transpire right the way down the Academy’s youth groups, with Under-16 and even an Under-15 involved in the Under-18s’ 2-1 win over Reading at the weekend.
Halajko commented: “One of the positives from Monday night is that we had three or four youth team players out there, and they were getting to play up against Premier League players.
“They had three first-team players on the pitch who all have lots of experience at the top level. That’s a great challenge and a great experience for our lads.
"They’re at a great stadium, testing themselves against good, top-flight players.”
Halajko’s U23s will have the chance to bounce back immediately from the defeat when they host Manchester United Under-23s at Rush Green Stadium on Friday evening.
While the young Hammers are still looking for their first Premier League 2 win of the season, the combination of both their outstanding results in the Papa John’s Trophy – three wins from three against senior Football League opposition – and the close-run nature of each of their matches so far.
Certainly, Halajko feels that his young side possess the character necessary to turn their league form around, starting with that fixture against the Red Devils in east London.
“We can’t hide away from it and we can’t shy away from it,” Halajko admitted. “We’ve got to get back out there and try and put it right as quickly as we can.
“It’s a really tough test for us to go and do it against Manchester United. That’s good – we want tough tests. We’ll go again and see what we can do in the next game.”
West Ham United Under-23s take on Manchester United Under-23s on Friday 27 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 this Academy fixtures will be played behind closed doors. Only key personnel will be admitted on site and the match will be played without supporters present, in line with safety guidelines and social distancing measures in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.