22/08/2014: West Ham U21s 1-2 Saints U21s
Saints kicked off their U21 campaign with a 1-1 draw with Fulham at Staplewood on Monday. Boss Martin Hunter said he was unhappy with the performance. Saints included a number of players who had spent most of the summer working with the first team. Saphir Taider was also given a run out in an attempt to boost his match fitness. The Algerian stood out, scoring with a neat finish on 81 to cancel out Freddy Plumain's 78 minute opener.
Hunter took a much more youthful side to Upton Park four days later. Out went Paulo Gazzaniga, Jack Stephens, Matt Targett, Harrison Reed, Taider and Jake Sinclair. Cody Cropper was the oldest Southampton player on the pitch at 21, with the entire outfield made up of teenagers.
The visitors made their intentions clear from the very beginning, driving forward with intent from kick-off. It was a very scrappy affair for the most part. Saints weren't quite at their best, but did show more quality on the ball than their opponents. Omar Rowe came close to giving Saints the lead on 6 minutes, latching on to a weak clearance on the edge of the area.
Rowe was handed another chance following more slack play from the home side. Jake Flannigan and Sam McQueen combined before playing in Rowe, who made no mistake this time, slotting into the corner of the net from inside the area.
West Ham came close to bundling the ball in from a free-kick on 13. Saints defended well as a unit, putting men behind the ball and looking to counter. Utilising the pace of Rowe was Saints' most effective offensive tactic.
On 33 minutes Saints right-back Niall Mason headed off the line from a corner. West Ham were made to rue that missed opportunity moments later when Saints struck again for 2-0. Ryan Seager smashed into the roof of the net from Rowe's corner. West Ham struck a free-kick straight at Cropper just before half-time.
The 2nd half started fairly brightly, but the tempo soon slowed. Saints were content to sit back and patiently wait for any openings. It was West Ham who had the better of the chances, however. On 72 Wojcik Kosela hit the bar, having intercepted Jason McCarthy's under-hit back pass. The same player then blasted over the bar from inside the area, as the Hammers' pressing intensified. Elliott Lee shot wide, before Cropper got down well to save from a corner on 85. Kosela finally got his goal in stoppage time, firing in off the post. Saints had already done enough to secure victory by that point, however. There was barely enough time for West Ham to even think about looking for an equaliser.
Hunter's boys certainly have another level they can raise it to, but given the level of experience on show Saints will probably consider it a satisfying evening. West Ham weren't quite as cynical as Sam Allardyce's first team are when they're at their worst, but they did mix it up a bit, and the quality of football did suffer slightly as a result. Saints weren't quite as free-flowing going forward as they often are, but the likes of Rowe and Seager did produce moments of individual magic. There were plenty of individual errors, but Saints worked well as a team, particularly defensively. 17 year-olds like Mason and Josh Debayo looked completely at ease playing at a higher level. None of them did anything to suggest they will be knocking on Ronald Koeman's door imminently, but it's something to build on at least.
Cropper: Got better as the match went on. Distribution was mixed. Usually more efficient when throwing the ball out rather than kicking it. Did well with a couple of tricky long balls and made one great save towards the end of the game
Mason: Didn't get forward as much as his opposite full-back Debayo, but solid defensively, with a number of clean tackles
McCarthy: Slightly uneasy on the ball at times, but dealt with West Ham's aerial threat well
Wood: A fairly relaxed performance in the centre of defence. Made one excellent interception in first half stoppage time
Debayo: Defended intelligently. Showed plenty of adventure going forward, and although not everything he tried came off, he did complete a few excellent passes
Flannigan: Showed good awareness in front of the back four and broke forward to good effect on a few occasions, particularly in the first half
Hesketh: Not usually known for his defensive work, but more than held his own in that department with some good tackles. Tidy on the ball too
Sims: A bit off in the first half. Struggled to beat his man, and first touch not what it usually is. A bit better after the break when he used his pace to good effect on the counter a couple of times
Seager: Took a while to get going, but some good moments in patches. Pulled off one particularly eye catching piece of skill to get out of a tricky situation at the back
Rowe: Bright early on. Instrumental in helping Saints establish a two goal lead in the first-half with some skilful play. A lot quieter in the 2nd half. Made one risky back-pass which nearly put Cropper in trouble
McQueen: Used his body strength well, and some good link-up play in spells. Only let down by his finishing
Demkiv: Didn't see much of the ball coming on with just a few minutes to spare
West Ham - Kosela (90)
Saints - Rowe (8) Seager (35)
Referee: Lee Betts
West Ham: Spiegel, Westley, Page, Cullen, Onariase, Oxford, Turgott (Sadlier 37), Bywater, Lee, Lletget, Fanimo (Kosela 64)
Subs not used: Brown, Knoyle, Nasha
Saints: Cropper, Mason, McCarthy, Wood, Debayo, Flannigan, Hesketh, Sims, Seager, Rowe (Demkiv 85), McQueen
Subs not used: Johns, Clinton, Little, Regis