Ahead of their crucial final game of the season on Friday, West Ham United U23s lead coach Dmitri Halajko has expressed his pride in how his players have fought back to earn the right to play for their own fate.
It was as recently as mid-March that the young Hammers found themselves bottom of the Premier League 2 Division 1 table, in keeping with a pattern in the first half of the season of generally good displays not being matched by the results they deserved.
Having picked up just nine points from their first 16 games of the league season, the young Hammers have since recorded 14 from their last seven matches.
That run encompasses victories over Leicester City, Manchester United, Everton and Arsenal, with draws against Liverpool and last season’s champions Chelsea, and a narrow 1-0 defeat to this season’s victors Manchester City.
Such strong results evidence a growth in the Hammers’ development squad over the course of the campaign which sees them enter their final fixture – against Arsenal at Rush Green Stadium on Friday night – with all to play for.
As things currently stand, West Ham’s U23s are eleventh in the table, behind Arsenal by two points, but above Leicester in the relegation zone by the margin of a sole point, with a slightly inferior goal difference.
A win against the Gunners on Friday would therefore not only secure West Ham’s Division 1 berth for next season, but would also see them surpass the visitors in the table.
A draw, meanwhile, could also be enough – but would leave the Hammers nervously awaiting the Foxes’ result at home to mid-table Liverpool on Monday afternoon.
“It’s in our hands,” Halajko told whufc.com. “We’ll be hoping against Arsenal to get those points that we need – if we get three points, then we’re definitely safe.
“At the moment, there’s a good chance we might stay up, but we want to make it one hundred per cent sure.
“I think what we’ve learned about ourselves recently as a team is that when we manage our performance levels to our potential, we’re a match for anyone in this league.
“If we let our performance levels drop, then anyone in this league can beat us – so it’s really down to us making sure we reach the levels that we’re capable of. If we do, we’ll give anyone in this league a game and more often than not come away with a result.
“It’ll be down to how we perform – we don’t need to think about Arsenal too much, we need to think about ourselves, so we’ll be looking at ourselves and making sure we get the performance we need.”
The Hammers’ last game was the aforementioned 2-1 win over Arsenal at Meadow Park last week, when two penalties from Conor Coventry and Mipo Odubeko overturned Nikolaj Moller’s own spot-kick.
Whether that’s through grinding out a result or playing beautiful football, whatever the way it is, we’re finding a way to get the results we weren’t at first
Halajko’s team were dominant on the afternoon and controlled the majority of the game, but were forced to wait until the 86th minute for Odubeko’s penalty to clinch victory.
The game was reminiscent of a number of early-season fixtures where, despite the U23s creating numerous scoring opportunities and having control of the match, it looked like a lack of efficiency might have cost them important Premier League 2 points.
The difference, according to Halajko, amounted to their ability to make those games count.
He confirmed: “It was the type of game we weren’t winning at the start of the season – a game where we were dominant and everything was telling us we should have come away with three points.
“Whereas we were finding a way to lose those games at the start of the season, now we’re finding ways to win them.
“Whether that’s through grinding out a result or playing beautiful football, whatever the way it is, we’re finding a way to get the results we weren’t at first.
“Now, we’re finding a way to grind out three points when needed.”
West Ham United U23s take on Arsenal U23s on Friday 7 May 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 Academy fixtures will be played behind closed doors until further notice. 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.