West Ham United U23s kick off their Premier League Cup campaign away at Wolverhampton Wanderers U23s on Friday afternoon, commencing at 2pm.
After an enthralling 2-1 victory over Chelsea in Premier League 2 Division 1 last time out, the young Hammers will be hoping to transfer their league momentum into the cup clash.
Taking place at Kidderminster Harries’ Aggborough Stadium, these are all the facts you need to know about Friday's game…
The story so far
In the absence of the Premier League International Cup this season – on hold given COVID-related considerations – West Ham United are set to play their first game in the domestic equivalent, the Premier League Cup, since 2016/17.
Open to Category One and Category Two academies, with Categories Three and Four clubs vying in qualifiers to join them, the Premier League Cup is designed to enhance the competitiveness of the Professional Development Phase league calendar with knockout football.
The competition returns this season after being curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019/20, and subsequently not taking place in 2020/21.
The Premier League Cup is contested between under-23 players, with each side allowed to field three over-age outfield players and a goalkeeper born before January 1, 1998 in the 2021-22 season.
Taking a similar format to the UEFA Champions’ League, where 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four, each team plays the others in their group both home and away over the course of the next six months.
With the top two teams in each group advancing, West Ham’s opponents in Group F are Wolves, Swansea City and one of Plymouth Argyle and Exeter City, whose qualifier was postponed and will also be contested on Friday afternoon.
West Ham U23s’ last outing in a knockout competition was a dramatic Premier League International Cup quarter-final victory over Derby County at Pride Park on Tuesday 10 March 2020, when a 3-3 draw led to the Hammers advancing 6-5 on penalties.
And while Dmitri Halajko’s development squad on that occasion saw their fine run only halted by the season’s curtailment, they will back themselves to make the most of the benefits of cup football this season, starting with a trip to Wolves on Friday.
It wasn’t long ago, of course, that West Ham last won the Premier League Cup! Six years ago, after a two-legged final ended in 1-0 home wins for both sides, the U21s defeated Hull City U21s on penalty kicks at the KC Stadium.
Managed by former Crewe Alexandra midfielder James Collins, who quit professional football early on to pursue coaching and is of no relation to the West Ham fans’ favourite, Wolves U23s have a proud record of progressing their youth into the first-team ranks.
The likes of Oskar Buur, Morgan Gibbs-White and Max Kilman have all progressed under Collins’ tutelage in the last couple of seasons, and while a number of Wolves’ players on the precipice of the first team have departed on loan in recent weeks, plenty of fledgling talent has remained in the East Midlands - albeit with recent U23s teams having a particularly youthful lok.
Wales U17 international midfielder Owen Hesketh, formerly of Manchester City, is the standout name, having netted six goals in 17 appearances in Premier League 2 Division 2 last year.
And Wolves will be full of confidence for Friday’s cup clash against West Ham, having defeated League One side Wigan Athletic 4-2 on penalties in the Papa John’s Trophy group stages on Tuesday night, after a 0-0 draw at the DW Stadium.
In terms of their league form, the hosts will be hoping to build on last season’s fourth-placed finish, when just two wins from their last nine games saw them lose ground to division leaders Leeds United, before slipping to a 3-2 defeat to now-promoted Crystal Palace in the semi-finals.
Wolves have made a promising start to the new campaign, however, mirroring the young Hammers’ record of two wins from two home games and a loss in their sole away game, and will be hoping to keep up their recent momentum and mount another promotion bid.
Last time out…
The last time West Ham United U23s met Wolves U23s in academy competition was a memorable occasion for the boys in Claret and Blue: a 2-1 victory in the Premier League 2 Division 2 play-off semi-final at Molineux Stadium, back in May 2017.
The hosts led for much of that game, but saw themselves overhauled by two West Ham goals inside the final ten minutes courtesy of Jahmal Hector-Ingram and Martin Samuelsen – the latter an injury-time penalty.
Two West Ham players remain at the Club from their line-up that day: winger Nathan Holland, currently on loan at Oxford United, and then-18-year-old captain Declan Rice, who needs little further introduction.
On the whole, West Ham U23s are undefeated in their last seven academy fixtures against Wolves U23s – a run stretching back to April 2013 – winning five of them.
What they’re saying
West Ham United U23s lead coach Dmitri Halajko: “We’ve got an interesting group of teams we don’t normally get to play against, so the Premier League Cup will be a nice challenge.
"We haven’t been in this cup for a few years so, due to there being no European football this year, it gives us those extra fixtures the lads need to develop and a cup competition to go and get after - so we’ll be doing exactly that.
"We can’t wait to face Wolves in a new competition, and we want to go as far as we can in it, as with any competition. We’ll be going up against an always-strong academy and seeing what we can get. We’re looking for three points to start us off on a good cup run, hopefully."
How can I follow?
West Ham United U23s’ match against Wolves U23s kicks off at 2pm on Friday 3 September at the Aggborough Stadium. Tickets can be purchased via the Kidderminster Harriers website.
You can also follow proceedings with our live blog on whufc.com from 1.30pm and Twitter updates, and there will be the usual array of post-match reaction and highlights pieces available over Friday evening and Saturday morning.