Terry Westley’s West Ham United U23s fell to a season-ending 1-3 defeat to Steve Gatting’s Arsenal U23s at the London Stadium on Friday evening, one that gave the Young Gunners their first-ever Premier League Two Division One title win.
The visitors, who made the trip to East London two points in front of second-place Liverpool, dominated the first period of the affair, first leading through first-team star Reiss Nelson on 20 minutes and doubling that advantage via an Eddie Nketiah goal seven later.
Nketiah, also having starred for the North London club’s senior side this campaign, got his second early in the second-half and although Domingos Quina pulled one back late on for the hosts, they always looked second best at the former Olympic Stadium.
A defeat on the final day of an impressive term for the East Londoners saw them remain in fifth position in the standings and they will end the campaign there should the Reds overcome Chelsea in early May, if that result does transpire, the Gunners will have ended up atop of Division 1 by just two points from the Merseyside outfit.
From the start on a warm evening in East London, home manager Westley decided on two changes to his starting Xl from Monday afternoon’s away loss to league strugglers Derby County.
In the back four, centre-half Ben Wells came in for a rare start to take the place of injured Josh Pask, while further up the field striker Oladapo Afolayan replaced young midfielder Alfie Lewis as the home side opted for a more attacking formation.
Whereas, visiting boss Gatting made four alterations to his own team from their most recent outing seven days ago, a narrow Emirates Stadium victory over Swansea City.
The first of those came between the sticks with Joao Virginia being preferred to Dejan Iliev, while the away side also switched things up formation wise, midfielder Joe Willock and exciting attackers Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah, senior stars at times this campaign, took up the positions of Charlie Gilmour, Xavier Amaechi and Folarin Balogun.
Right from the very off at London Stadium, which the Young Hammers are permitted to play three PL2 matches at per season, previously beating relegated Manchester United and losing to Derby, there would only be one team dictating the play.
That side was, of course, Gatting’s men and they could have easily taken the lead even early than they eventually did, passing up some excellent opportunities inside the first ten minutes.
Nketiah was the first to test home keeper Nathan Trott, the Bermudan instrumental on keeping the score down in the opening exchanges, and him being equal to it.
There was no need for Trott to save the next time the visitors got through, Nelson racing away one-on-one with the shot-stopper and somehow managing to fire wide if his right-hand post.
At the other end, the hosts could muster up very little, only a half-opening for captain Marcus Browne and Quina shot that flew just over from distance but the North London outfit kept knocking at the door.
And it finally fell down for them after 20 minutes, although it required an excellent finish from Nelson for it to topple, Jordi Osei-Tutu picking him out in the middle after a silky attacking move.
Nelson still had plenty of work to do from here, turning to face goal and unleashing a low and accurate shot beneath Trott to give his team a deserved lead.
The title-chasers were in no mood to mess about either and before long, looked increasingly like they were going to get the job done as the Sun dipped below the terraces in Stratford.
Another very similar move saw the ball shifted out to the left flank, this time Smith Rowe was out there to feed Osei-Tutu on the overlap and the story was very much the same from here.
The starlet picked out a perfect ball for the advancing Nketiah in the box, just yards from the goal-line to finish past Trott from close-range and out the Champagne on ice for the club that was promoted from Division 2 alongside the Hammers last season.
However, in all honesty, this shouldn’t have been it for Arsenal before half-time and certainly not for Nketiah as the forward wasted the chance if the evening mere minutes before the break.
A long ball from Da Silva played Nelson clean through on Trott, his pace beating the goalkeeper and rounding him to feed Nketiah a half-open goal from the middle of the penalty area, he could only hit the crossbar.
Just prior to this, the Irons would have also felt like they should have scored and found a way back into the encounter, Afolayan picking up the pieces of a Browne run to race clear of the defence and force a smart stop out of Virginia.
But, that was the way things stayed heading into half-time, the Young Gunners could taste glory at this stage, although a comeback from Wesley’s men was still very much a possibility.
They threatened to do this early in the second 45, though couldn’t seem to make the most of a string of free-kicks in and around the box, skipper Browne firing a total of three into the wall throughout the affair.
Nketiah was still proving a huge handful for the home defenders to deal with and in the wake of another few opportunities for him, he was able to put the match to bed with 20 minutes to play.
Once again, the bright Nelson was heavily involved, breaking down the left flank, his direction and power too much to be stopped by any defender and this time after finding him, Nketiah couldn’t miss, needing only to tap the ball home.
On reflection, the visitors to London Stadium should have had the game and the title wrapped up well before this stage, the likes of substitute Gilmour and Da Silva passing up openings to do so much earlier.
Frustratingly for the East Londoners, whose first-team ironically travelled to the Emirates to face Arsenal’s first-team in the Premier League on Sunday afternoon, conceding a third sprung them into life.
The introduction of Josh Powell made a difference for Westley’s boys, his skewed header a chance to make things interesting and then Browne also missed one from his superb free-kick delivery on the right side.
Much like in previous weeks, however, Browne was the man pulling the strings in the final third and ensuring that the Gunners weren’t going to see the game out easily.
His free-kick cross almost teed up defender Tunji Akinola to pull a goal back, but then he combined with Portugal U19 star Quina on the edge of the area and his side did have a lifeline.
Quina, who had arguably been the standout performer on the night in Claret & Blue, smashed a powerful shot high into the roof of the net, giving Virginia no chance.
The goal came just a little too late for the outclassed home team and despite them pushing right up until the final whistle, they were unable to force a path through and spoil the coronation.
Gatting’s boys could well have celebrated their title by scoring four goals late on, although the linesman put paid to that dream, substitute Tyreece John Jukes having a late finish ruled out for offside.
Though when all was said and done, only one thing mattered to the visitors and that was the fact that after a long and closely-contested title fight in their first-ever PL2 Division 1 campaign, they had emerged as unlikely champions.
The Irons would have also undoubtedly been pleased as their London rivals danced around and spayed Champaign after the game’s end, as they had comfortably avoided relegation and challenged for the top four in their maiden Division 1 term and ended the night and the season with immense pride.
Next up for both of these teams will be the long wait to find out how the standings will finish in the top division of English youth football over the next few weeks.
The Young Hammers will be keen to find out whether they will end up fifth and the Young Gunners their margin of victory, as the clubs begin to look ahead to next season, although first-team duty may yet still await for some of these youngsters in the Premier League.