Jamal Baptiste and West Ham United U21s set for must-win Papa John’s Trophy game at Gillingham


The winner takes it all on Tuesday night as West Ham United U21s visit Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium with qualification from the Papa John’s Trophy group stages on the line.

After a 2-1 victory over Ipswich Town and a 1-0 defeat at Colchester United, the Hammers face an intriguing situation when they make the short journey to Kent at the culmination of Group A in the Southern Section.

All four teams – West Ham U21s, Ipswich, Gillingham and Colchester – have three points after two games apiece, and with ties going to penalty kicks in the event of a draw, that means that one of the Hammers or the Gills are guaranteed to go through tonight.

Dmitri Halajko’s development squad therefore need pay no attention to the other group game, Ipswich hosting Colchester, and can instead focus on the tough task of overcoming League One opposition on their own turf.

But it is a task they have done before, having played so well to come from behind against Ipswich at Portman Road, and the young Hammers go into Tuesday’s tie in outstanding form.

Having seen off Manchester United U23s by a 6-0 scoreline in Premier League 2 on Saturday – a result which did not flatter the Hammers, such was the quality of their display – young defender Jamal Baptiste feels confidence is rife ahead of Tuesday’s crunch game.

“I think this’ll be one of our biggest games this year,” Baptiste told whufc.com.

“Going into the game, both winners from each of the group games will go into the next round. Getting through to the knockout stages would be a really good achievement for us as a team.

“We should just start the game where we finished on Saturday – even start the game where we started on Saturday! 

“We didn’t put a foot wrong and were positive for the whole 90 minutes – it’ll be tough, but we’ll try to do that again on Tuesday.”

The Academy of Football have only progressed to the knockout stages of the competition twice in the five seasons since academy sides were invited to participate in 2016/17, where they lost 3-0 to Peterborough United last year.

But there can be no doubting the young Hammers’ progress since last season, after Saturday’s 6-0 victory pushed them up to second in the Premier League 2 Division 1 table – just a point behind leaders, and reigning champions, Manchester City – with a third of the season gone.

“Everyone in the team is confident at the moment,” Baptiste reflected. “We’re all together, on and off the pitch, and we’re just working for each other – it’s paying off.

“We’ve come a long way. This time last year we were fighting near the bottom, this year we’re fighting for the top positions in the table. I think that’s a realistic target we can reach.”

Baptiste, who was among the goalscorers on Saturday – his third of the season being, remarkably, the ninth goal from a development squad defender – wants to see his team further the momentum they showed from the game, in which they took a fifth-minute lead – and simply didn’t look back from there.

“I think the defenders will get more goals than the attackers this season!” he joked. 

“I was just buzzing to score another goal – it’s another asset to my game, and hopefully I can get another one going into Tuesday.

“We couldn’t ask for anything more from our last game. We didn’t concede, and scored many, great goals, just playing really well the whole game.

“I think that early goal helped us a lot and built us up as a team. It made us go again and just keep on going again and getting more goals.

“We were calm and composed on the ball, everyone wanted it – nobody was shy to get on it – and the quality was top across the team.”

West Ham United U21s conclude their Papa John's Trophy group-stage campaign at Gillingham's Priestfield Stadium on Tuesday 26 October. Kick-off is at 7pm.

Tickets are available to purchase via the Gillingham website.

The game is also available to stream live on Gillingham's iFollow platform for £10.

You can also follow proceedings with our live blog on whufc.com from 6.30pm. There will also be post-match reaction and highlights pieces on whufc.com over the course of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.