The under 18s were desperately unlucky to exit the FA Youth Cup at the hands of Premier League Bolton Wanderers on a bitterly cold evening at the Kassam Stadium. This was the first time any of these players had had the chance to play at the ground and they were all clearly eager to make the most of the opportunity. The match was watched by a good crowd of 451, curious at the opportunity to see future Oxford stars in action. Oxford progressed to the Third round after beating a highly fancied Dulwich Hamlet team, while Bolton, as a Premier Academy League team, entered the competition at this stage. However, with Bolton at the bottom of their league the tie was ripe for a cup upset.
The Young Us (as I have now dubbed them) looked nervy in the early exchanges and Bolton raced to an early lead. Taking advantage of an acre of space down the right flank, winger Zach Clough pinged a ball across the Oxford box and, after making its way past nearly everyone else, was met by Bolton's James Caton, who struck past Dan Lincoln (on loan from Reading) in the Oxford goal. Wanderers had been ruthless, taking the first chance that they had created, and part of me was worried that they would go on to score a hat-full. Oxford's backline were looking shaky and were uncomfortable on the ball, frequently sending passes astray and conceding possession in dangerous areas.
However, the response shown by the Oxford players did them great credit and showed fantastic spirit as they worked hard to force their way back into the match. As the midfield began to assert themselves more, they began to carve out some chances, with Jacob Hughes latching onto a ball from Marsh, which fizzed narrowly wide. That was, however, to be Hughes' only significant contribution to the match as he was replaced within the half-hour by Greg Hackett (cousin of Chris) due to injury. Bolton were forced into making their own change soon after, as Oscar Threlkeld went down under an innocuous challenge, screaming in agony, and soon left the field on a stretcher.
It was an intriguing match, with both sides attempting to play a neat passing game, making for an entertaining match. However, with play being almost entirely centred in the central third there were very few clear-cut chances, wingers Callum O'Dowda and Jermaine Udumaga being pinned back too deep to be threatening. By far the best chance of the half fell to Tyrone Marsh, who had otherwise cut a lonely and isolated figure up to this point. Latching on to an absolutely beautiful through ball from Jack Ross, Marsh unleashed a volley that was excellently tipped away at full stretch by Bolton goalkeeper Lewis Fielding. The half time whistle blew shortly after with Oxford 1-0 down but growing into the match and beginning to play with confidence, setting the second half up nicely for a grandstand finale.
|Picture by @OUFClive|
It was Oxford who struck the next meaningful blow, and deservedly so, as Alderman floated delightful ball into the box from the corner flag. Tyrone Marsh leapt highest to meet it, the ball looping over Fielding and into the far corner to wild celebrations, which no doubt helped to warm the frozen crowd, who began to sense an upset.
Following this, Bolton surged forward with renewed impetus, but United continued to create chances, one of which saw Marsh (rightly) called offside as he struck a fierce shot goalwards, while another saw Marsh again called offside despite being in his own half when the ball was played clean through on goal. Bolton should have retaken the lead shortly afterwards, Clough causing havoc in the Oxford backline and eventually squaring to Georg Iliev (from CSKA Sofia apparently) who somehow managed to poke the ball over from six yards out, to the great amusement of the crowd.
As my thoughts began to turn towards extra time and another 30 minutes sat shivering in the cold, Bolton struck the killer blow. Midfielder Chris Lester pulled the ball back from the touchline and Iliev made up for his terrible miss of minutes before by sealing the Trotters' passage into the next round with a magnificent overhead kick. The Bolton players celebrated like they'd just won the FA Youth Cup, but it was a cruel blow to Oxford, who had worked incredibly hard and put in a really fantastic performance to match their Premier League opponents. Of the two sides it was Oxford who had created the most chances and had spent the most time in their opponent's half, but in the end it was something special that separated the two sides.
The youngsters should take great heart from this performance, after almost matching their Premier League opponents for 90 minutes. The difference in class between the two sides was visible only occasionally, and didn't come close to the gulf I had been anticipating; Bolton were given more time on the ball than we were and were guilty of fewer stray passes, but other than that it was a very even game. While I had feared we would be in for a thrashing following the early goal, I left feeling that we were unlucky not to win and that was due to the character and exceptional standard of play the team produced on the night.
|Jack Ross - picture by @OUFClive|
This was my first experience of watching youth level football and I found it to be a refreshing one. Stripped of the cynicism that often accompanies senior level football this felt like a purer version of the game, and was all the more entertaining for it. For example, even at 2-1 during injury time when Bolton were trying to see the game out, they could have taken the ball to the corner flag but chose to keep playing on. It was good to see and made a nice change from the cynical timewasting we're used to.
Despite the disappointing result there are many positives to take from the evening. There appear to be some very good players currently maturing in the youth team and to play in front of a Kassam Stadium crowd will hopefully have done their development the world of good. They've had a small taste of what they might be able to expect if they can reach the first team and maybe this will inspire them to work even harder to reach that goal. On tonight's evidence there could be a bright future ahead for some of our young players.