When the full-time whistle sounded at Meadow Park on Saturday afternoon, the sense of relief was palpable.
For all of West Ham United U23s’ domination of Arsenal U23s over the entire match, it wasn’t until the 86th minute that they had retaken the lead when Mipo Odubeko’s venomous penalty kick restored their earlier advantage.
The two teams had traded quickfire penalties late on in the first half – Conor Coventry’s in the 31st minute for West Ham being quickly cancelled out by Nikolaj Moller’s for Arsenal mere moments later – but a scoreline of 1-1 was not set to reflect the ensuing game.
The Hammers played with commitment, energy and industry, creating opportunities to shoot no fewer than 23 times, with 12 of those on target – a stark contrast to Arsenal’s six and one respectively.
Key to that creativity was the combination of left-back Emmanuel Longelo and left winger Nathan Holland, whose clever interplay saw them reach the by-line of multitude of occasions.
Both players had their own chances to score, while laying on a number for their teammates, but Longelo was just delighted to see his side claim an important three points in their quest to retain Premier League 2 Division 1 status.
“It was a massive three points,” Longelo told whufc.com.
“We’ve been talking about this game for a long time, and as soon as we lost to City last week [a 1-0 defeat], we knew this was going to be a big one, so props to the boys – they dug deep and got the victory.
“This game meant a lot to us. We want to stay up in this league – it’s the best league for development – and we want to show our quality, so it meant a lot and we put in a hundred per cent to win it.
“It’s been a tough week for me, as I’ve been ill, but it’s not all about me, it’s about the team. Nath and I have just got that good connection, that good link-up.
“We brought it out today and helped the team get that victory, so I’m proud of it.”
Having bravely fought off the illness which saw him withdrawn at half-time during that defeat to City a week ago, Longelo’s constant raids down the left flank were an aspect of the Hammers’ performance which Arsenal struggled to deal with throughout.
It’s one of those things you feel when you’re out on the pitch, and today we all felt like we were going to get the win. We knew not to give up, to keep going regardless
The 2-1 win moves eleventh-placed West Ham to within two points of Arsenal in tenth, while also pushing the Hammers’ U23s to two points ahead of relegation rivals Leicester City U23s, who have a game in hand.
Regardless of the Foxes’ final two results, however, West Ham know that they can mathematically secure their place in the top division of development football by winning their season finale: the reverse fixture against Arsenal at Rush Green Stadium on Friday.
Encouraged by seeing his side battle hard, persist and win late on, Longelo is looking forward to the challenge.
The 20-year-old explained: “That’s what we work on in training – our counter-attacking, our finishing – so I felt we were going to get our chances and we were always going to score eventually.
“I felt it. It’s one of those things you feel when you’re out on the pitch, and today we all felt like we were going to get the win. We knew not to give up, to keep going regardless.
“After today, we’re going to have a lot of confidence going into Friday’s game, but we know that Arsenal will come back strong.
“Knowing Arsenal, they always do, but we’ve got to go into it with a cool head, just like we did today, keep working hard – and hopefully get another big three points to stay up.”