Friday 9th August 2019, 1900 KO
West Ham United FC U23 vs Fulham FC U23
My first match of the new season saw me back at a familiar ground for the Premier League 2 season opener. With West Ham’s second string finishing 11th in the top flight last season they have now joined Fulham in the second division, meaning that Dagenham & Redbridge’s Victoria Road is added to the list of grounds at which the Category One academies can test themselves.
And yesterday’s visit to East London truly was testing, particularly for those of us travelling by public transport. Arriving at Dagenham East the heavens well and truly emptied themselves all over East London, leaving me (and bizarrely about three hundred people all dressed in tuxedos) to fight our way to our destinations through a Noah-esque deluge.
The build up
There are twenty four Category One academies in England, of which Fulham and West Ham are two. These clubs’ U23 teams compete in the “Premier League 2”, which is then split into two twelve team leagues. Last season, West Ham played in the top league, but after suffering relegation along with Swansea City, they now find themselves playing in the lower tier. Bizarrely, so do Manchester United. It’s all a far cry from the “Class of ‘92” in Stretford…
After finishing 10th in this league last season, Fulham’s second string have undergone some changes over the summer, particularly with one notable player moving on. 16-year old Harvey Elliott, who generated so much attention at this level last season, before becoming the youngest ever Premier League debutant, aged 16 years and 30 days. Since that historic day in Wolverhampton, Chertsey-born Elliott has completed a dream move to the club he supports – Liverpool. And Elliott isn’t the only Academy prospect moving up the leagues this summer, with first team left-back Ryan Sessegnon completing a deadline day move to Tottenham Hotspur. Unfortunately I wouldn’t get a chance to see his World Cup-winning twin brother against West Ham, as he was injured.
There have been incomings as well, and two players would make their competitive bow for Fulham in Dagenham. Martell Taylor-Crossdale is a new striker who has arrived from Chelsea, whilst the giant centre-half Ben Tricker joins after ten years at Watford.
The Hammers second string have had a fine pre-season campaign, racking up four wins and two draws, including a 6-0 hammering of Belgian giants RSC Anderlecht. No one has drawn more plaudits in the pre-season than Dan Kemp. The diminutive winger has been capped at U19 and U2 levels by England, and has racked up three goals for the U23s before the season’s even started.
For ten minutes an even football match threatened to break out, but shortly after Cameron Thompson had threatened for Fulham, the Hammers took the lead – a position they would maintain for the remainder of the ninety minutes. Indeed, it was that man Kemp – signed from Chelsea in 2015 – who added to his six PL2 goals last season when he found the bottom corner in the 11th minute.
Just four minutes later, it was another West Ham midfielder getting in on the action, when Alfie Lewis double the scoreline. A long ball out from the back by Ghana-born No 1 Joseph Anang found Nathan Holland on the left wing. Holland has been capped by England at every level since U16, and showed that class to blaze past young right-back Cody Drameh. His inch perfect cross found Alfie Lewis in the centre, and the 19 year old from Leigh-on-Sea steered it right into the top corner for 2-0.
Fulham had their first chance on 19 minutes wen Jayen Harris broke through midfield and fed Nicolas Clase-Santos, but although the Spanish forward did well to cut inside Ajibola Alese, his shot was easily blocked by Ben Johnson. Then, on 35 minutes, Kemp had a gilt-edged opportunity to extend the lead, after Ben Tricker brought down Oladapo Afolayan in the box. Kemp stepped up but steered the spot-kick wide.
After the half-time break, Fulham faced more of the same, as West Ham didn’t let their tempo drop. Within five minutes of the second half starting, Fulham’s ‘keeper Magnus Norman had been forced into three good stops, all from Dan Kemp. First he blocked Kemp’s close-range effort from a cross, and then came two free-kicks in quick succession. I thought the first was good, but the second, low down to his left, was even better.
However, despite his good performance, it was Norman who had to carry the responsibility for West Ham’s third. Receiving the ball from Jerome Opoku at the back, Norman tried to cut inside the onrushing Oladapo Afolayan, but he was robbed by the former-Solihull Moor, who then almost apologetically slipped the ball into the empty net.
In the last notable action of the match, Anang was out quick to deny Martell Taylor-Crossdale a first goal in Fulham colours after the Edmonton-born striker was set clear by Cameron Thompson. Final score, 3-0 to West Ham.
West Ham looked like a very good side at the U23 second tier, and it wouldn’t be any surprise if they were able to bounce straight back up at the first time of asking. Their midfield trio of Conor Coventry, Alfie Lewis and Joe Powell were all more than comfortable in possession, and made it difficult for Fulham to win the ball back. Added to that, the outlets of Dan Kemp and Nathan Holland were dangerous throughout.
Republic of Ireland U19 international Coventry was probably the standout performer, though Kemp certainly ran him close. However, it was the twin defensive effort of Ajibola Alese and Ben Johnson which set the standard throughout the team, whilst Joseph Anang’s distribution from the back was impeccable. Alese is very young for U23 football, at only 18, but was composed and physically dominant. Speaking of physical dominance, with Paul Parker and Ledley King as close relatives, you’d expect nothing else from Ben Johnson.
As a fan of non-league football, it was also nice to see Oladapo Afolayan pick up a goal. The No 9 moved to West Ham from National League Solihull in January of last year, and has certainly taken an unorthodox route to the Premier League. After moving from his hometown of Harrow to Canada as a youngster, he then attended Loughborough University to study Civil Engineering, where he played non-league. He was up against a very physical test in Jerome Opoku and Ben Tricker, but more than stood up to the test.
As for Fulham’s strikers, it was very difficult for Martell Taylor-Crossdale to get into the game. He had one chance which was well stopped by Anang, but he will have more joy against other defences in this league. Crucially, he will get more service, as West Ham really strangled Fulham’s supply lines. In that regard, Fulham really needed to find a way to get Matt O’Riley on the ball further forward. The Isleworth-born youngster has already made his first team debut, and was involved with the first team squad again over the summer, and has the ability to be the stand out performer in the U23s, but Mark Pembridge’s team just couldn’t get him on the ball in dangerous areas.
Tyrese Francois was once again busy, and Australian’s close control is brilliant to watch. Once Fulham had brought on youngster Ben Davis, there were two midfielders who were never going to lose the ball, and the Cottagers did look better then. Speaking of Davis, it is clear there is promise in the U18s, with the Singaporean midfielder being joined by Zico Asare and Sonny Hilton in getting game time. U18 eligible Ryan de Havilland and Toni Stahl were also on the bench, which highlights another area where Fulham’s academy has real strength – goalkeepers. With Magnus Norman back this season, and Stahl, both Ashby-Hammonds and George Wickens, there is genuine depth and competition for the No 1 slots. Finally, for Fulham, it was good to see Jayden Mundle-Smith (captain on the day) and Cameron Thompson back from injury and both completing 90 minutes.
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