Being unable to get to Hartlepool on Saturday, I decided to head down to Roman Way in the morning to watch the youth team in action against Swindon. Anyone who's already seen the score will, of course, understand why I'm glad I did! With just a couple of exceptions it was the first time I had seen any of the current crop of youngsters and I caught them in imperious form as they thrashed Swindon 7-1.
In truth, it was a total mismatch. As good as Oxford undoubtedly were, Swindon were poor in every area. This was plainly apparent from the moment the match began and within five minutes the yellows had a two-goal lead, thanks to the predatory instincts of James Roberts. Roberts was a revelation last season and he scored goals for fun as a first-year scholar (including the first time I had seen him play, in the Oxfordshire Senior Cup final back in May) and he was certainly a class above the Swindon defence.
His first was a looping header as he was allowed to rise unchallenged to meet a deep floated cross into the box. For his second, Roberts burst through the sluggish backline to latch onto an incisive through ball from Freddie Grant and from the moment he made his run it was clear he would score. The Swindon keeper was left helpless as Roberts coolly dinked it over him.
Of course, it wasn't all a one-man show. Roberts may have gobbled up every chance that came his way but he needed someone to create those chances for him. Enter Sam Humphreys, who was a constant threat on the wing. Time and time again he beat his man and looked to deliver a ball into the box and it was always obvious that it would lead to a goal eventually. In fact it took less than 20 minutes as Jamie Calvin tapped in the third from close range. Humphreys had again turned the Swindon full-back inside out before heading for the byline and pulling it back into the danger zone. The danger should have been cleared then and there but when defender and goalkeeper contrived to make a hash of the clearance Calvin was on hand to punish them.
Swindon did pull a goal back, direct from a corner, and enjoyed a fleeting spell of pressure but Oxford never really looked in trouble. Goalkeeper Barney Martin should probably have done better for Swindon's goal but otherwise coped admirably on what was an admittedly quiet afternoon for him. He made a couple of decent saves in this period, including to spare Alfie Grant an embarrassing own goal after a cross bounced off his legs and looked destined for goal. Even more impressive is that Martin is only playing for the youth team at the moment because the first and second-choice goalkeepers, Josh Hill and Eddie Cavanagh, are both out injured. Martin usually keeps goal for the under-16s.
But as impressive as the whole team undoubtedly were, the first half really belonged to Roberts, who scored his third just before half-time on the break, pinching the ball off the feet of a static Swindon centre-back before lobbing the humiliated goalkeeper to wrap up his hat-trick. How many other times can we say we've seen an Oxford player score a first-half hat-trick against our local rivals?
The highly-rated Aidan Hawtin was introduced to the fray after the break and he looked hungry to inflict further damage on the visitors. He could have had a hat-trick himself, narrowly missing a one-on-one just moments after coming on to the field, he did well to meet an excellent defence-splitting pass but saw his effort drift agonisingly wide of the left-hand post. He had better luck on his second and third attempts, finding the net first with a header and then with a volley after getting the wrong side of the defence but on both occasions he was denied by the linesman's flag.
Having hit their opponents on the break several times in the first half (sound familiar?) Oxford's approach play in the second was more largely based around some lovely passing football. The Swindon defence were bamboozled by United's slick passing and superior movement and as a result they were able to slice through the massed Swindon ranks as if they were made of butter. Roberts got his fourth from just one such move, the yellows passing the ball around nicely on the edge of the area and when the gap inevitably opened he exploited it with a well-placed strike, finding the bottom right corner with pinpoint accuracy.
With Muctaru Conte coming off the bench to play on the left wing, Sam Humphreys was moved to the right but looked no less comfortable as an inverted winger. Given the recent discussions about our use of width in the senior team, I thought it was interesting to see that we are trying to produce players with the tactical flexibility to play on either flank. Humphreys looked very dangerous coming in centrally with the ball on his left foot and he added Oxford's sixth after a glorious passing move had opened up space on the left, allowing Hunphreys the simple task of tapping in the cross with his stronger foot.
Having been pulled around all match Swindon by now looked exhausted and they collapsed towards the end, having briefly looked like they'd tightened up at the back in the earlier stages of the second half. But the exhausted and disheartened defence could do nothing to stop the sprightly Hawtin from finally getting his goal when he latched onto a through-ball from Humphreys and slotted in for the seventh.
It's difficult to make any firm judgements about the team or make forecasts about the future of these players based just on one match, especially one as one-sided as this one. But based on the evidence on display in this game, the future is looking incredibly bright for some of these lads and for the club in general if this is the standard of player they're producing. With the development squad now in place to ease their progression into senior football the club is now better set up than ever before to nurture the obvious talent on display in our youth team.
Team: B Martin, Clarke, F Grant, Ashby, A Grant, McCormack, D Martin, George, Roberts, Calvin, Humphreys
Subs: Hawtin, Hackett, Conte, Welch-Hayes, Hayden