Ipswich Town v West Ham United U21s – All You Need To Know
West Ham United’s development squad get their 2021/22 Papa John’s Trophy campaign underway on Tuesday evening, travelling to Portman Road for what promises to be arguably their most challenging fixture of the group stages.
Paul Cook’s Ipswich Town - despite a difficult start to their League One campaign - are set to provide stiff opposition for the young Hammers in Suffolk, as both teams look to claim three points to kick off the cup competition.
Here’s everything you need to know about Tuesday's game…
2021/22 marks the 38th season of the Papa John’s Trophy (formerly known as the Leasing.com Trophy and Checkatrade Trophy for sponsorship purposes), the third most prestigious knockout tournament in English football after the FA Cup and League Cup.
The young Hammers have been drawn in Group A of the Southern Section against Ipswich, Gillingham and Colchester United in this season’s competition, which in recent seasons has invited Category One academies to tackle League One and League Two opposition.
These groups are regionalised - eight northern-based teams, eight southern-based – with each side playing one another once; as an Academy team, West Ham’s fixtures are all away at first-team stadia, a fitting reflection of the professional status the young Hammers aspire to.
The top two from each group qualify for the knockout stages, which - for the first two rounds at least - are also regionalised. The draw is then open from the quarter-finals onwards, although West Ham's U21s cannot meet another Academy team until at least the semi-finals.
With a prospective final to be played at Wembley Stadium, the Papa John’s Trophy is arguably the most valuable competition for any Academy side; no development squad has ever reached the Final, with only Chelsea, back in 2017/18, ever reaching the semi-finals.
Sunderland are this season’s defending champions after defeating Tranmere Rovers 1-0 back in March.
And, in the event of a draw on Tuesday night after 90 minutes, the two teams will go to penalties - with the winner gaining an extra point for their troubles!
The story so far
For the sixth consecutive season, West Ham’s bright young talents will go toe-to-toe with senior professional footballers in the Papa John’s Trophy.
Last season, the Academy of Football side progressed through their group in style, winning games away at Colchester (1-0), Portsmouth (1-0) and Southend United (3-1), before Peterborough United ended their challenge with a comprehensive 3-0 win in the Round of 32.
The significant shift in setting, rhythm and physicality from Premier League 2, lead coach Dmitri Halajko explained at full-time, was of undeniable benefit to his youngsters: “It’s a great competition from our point of view.
“Development-wise, for our young players, it does more than any other game of football we can play at our level, so we love the competition and we love being part of it.”
After making a strong start to their league season, with the Hammers unfortunate to only come away with a point - their seventh in four games - in a 2-2 draw at Leeds United on Saturday, the challenge of transferring that form to the Papa John's Trophy, while coming up against more experienced and physical opponents, is one that Halajko and his players are sure to relish.
Elsewhere in Group F, League One team Gillingham opened proceedings with a 1-0 win away at League Two Colchester United thanks to Robbie McKenzie’s winning goal in the third minute of stoppage time last week.
While senior teams have often tended to give a handful of their own academy players run-outs in the Papa John’s Trophy group stages of recent seasons, a tricky start to 2021/22 for Ipswich Town has seen manager Paul Cook admit that he plans to go strong on Tuesday night.
A 5-2 defeat at home to Bolton Wanderers on Saturday – in which former Hammer Oladapo Afolayan scored twice for the Trotters – condemned the Tractor Boys to a winless start of six league games, results which lay in stark contrast to the mood in which the season was initially approached.
Heavy investment – including from new shirt sponsor Ed Sheeran – had many of the Ipswich faithful convinced that this season could be the one in which the former UEFA Cup winners would recover from the relegation in 2019 that ended their 63-year stay in the top two tiers of English football.
But after making no fewer than 20 signings this summer, getting his squad gelled and up to speed is evidently the immediate priority for Cook, who told reporters: “Whatever competition we play in winning’s a habit and it’s a habit we haven’t got at the minute, so Tuesday night becomes a really important game.”
A highly experienced manager who joined the club in March, Cook – formerly of Accrington Stanley, Chesterfield and Portsmouth – certainly knows what is required to be successful in League One, having led Wigan Athletic to promotion in 2018/19.
His squad certainly possesses enviable depth as well, with former Wigan midfielder Lee Evans skippering a team that includes the likes of Wes Burns, Sone Aluko and Egyptian national Sam Morsy, who Cook has confirmed will debut on Tuesday night.
Aston Villa youngster Louie Barry – the teenage forward who spent a short time at Barcelona’s La Masia and memorably scored against Liverpool in the FA Cup third round last season – is an exciting loan signing, whilst midfielder Scott Fraser offers an abundance of quality in midfield.
Possessing strength in depth, a well-versed manager and an ambitious outlook, Ipswich are sure to provide one of the toughest tests of the season for Dmitri Halajko’s young Hammers.
What they’re saying
Development squad lead coach Dmitri Halajko: “I think we’re going into Tuesday’s game in confident and good form.
“We’ve got seven points now from four games in Premier League 2 Division 1, which is a great return. Just under two points a game is a really good return, and that’s what we’re churning out at the moment.
“We go into Tuesday’s game with confidence, but also knowing we’re playing one of the better teams in League One. It probably doesn’t get any tougher than that for an Academy side, coming up against a team like Ipswich in the Papa John’s Trophy.
“It’s probably going to be one of the toughest games of our whole season, but we couldn’t be in much better form going into it – so it’s set up really nicely.”
How can I follow?
West Ham United U21s’ match against Ipswich Town kicks off at Portman Road at 7.45pm on Tuesday 14 September. Away tickets are available to purchase in Blocks V1/V2 via the Ipswich Town website and are priced at £10 for adults, £5 for seniors/U23 and £3 for U19.
Please note that tickets are only available online and in advance of kick-off - there will be no sales on the gate.
You can also follow proceedings with our live blog on whufc.com from 7.15pm. There will also be post-match reaction and highlights pieces available from Suffolk over the course of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.