The Pep Clotet era got off to a flying start today as Oxford United got the 2017/18 season off to a winning start. Goals from Wes Thomas and Josh Ruffels earned the U's all three points at Boundary Park - their first ever win at the ground on their 16th visit.
There were three new faces in the United starting eleven with Mike Williamson joining new captain Curtis Nelson at the back, James Henry starting on the right of a four man midfield and Jack Payne sitting just behind Wes Thomas up front. Williamson was instantly impressive, using his experience to marshall those around him, while Henry and Payne looked inventive throughout.
The U’s started as brightly as their all yellow kit, Josh Ruffels having an early effort deflected wide and his midfield partner Ryan Ledson testing home keeper Ben Wilson with a fourth minute effort; the on-loan Cardiff man grateful for an early touch after joining just the day before. Thomas tested his handling from a similar position after 18 minutes before an audacious flick from Payne flew across goal after some clever play down the left from Joe Rothwell and Marvin Johnson.
Oldham’s main attacking focal point was former United man Craig Davies who made some intelligent runs and held the ball well as he waited for support and felt he was baulked on 26 minutes as he challenged for a header with Simon Eastwood about 25 yards from goal after a long ball bounced awkwardly. United’s keeper, more comfortable back inside the penalty area, also had to punch an in-swinging corner away from under his bar on 28 as United weathered a five minute spell where Williamson was off to receive treatment for a cut mouth before Eastwood again got down well to stop a Davies effort on 37.
That was Oldham's best spell and having weathered it the breakthrough came after 39 minutes. A clever touch from Rothwell gave the ball to Payne who provided a perfect ball through the defence for Thomas. Oldham appealed but in vain as Thomas span clear behind them. Wilson came to meet him but Thomas waited for the keeper to commit then stabbed the ball past him and into the net to score the first goal of the campaign- the second year in a row that Thomas has had that honour.
He might have had a second before the break had a desperate defender not done just enough to divert the ball into the side-netting but the Yellows were full value for their advantage at the break with the brilliant Ledson forcing one last save from Wilson to end the half.
Payne had been tormenting the home defence and might have capped that with a goal as he turned on the spot and forced the first save of the second half as the U’s roared towards their magnificent supporters, and the Huddersfield loanee could have opened his account on 55 minutes had he been able to guide his header across Wilson rather than straight at him. Heading may not be his strong point, but we’ll forgive him if he plays this well each week.
That came after a 60 yard run from Nelson (pursued by Davies) down the right wing; the U’s were flexible and fluent, certainly more athletic than Oldham, with everyone comfortable on the ball and swapping roles at will; Rothwell always able to move inside to create space for Marvin Johnson to run in down the left, Ledson and Ruffels taking turns to join the attack.
Oldham worked hard and started to launch both the ball, and more men, forward but Eastwood and his defence looked comfortable in the autumn sunshine. The one moment of danger came when Nelson was robbed bringing the ball out of defence with 20 minutes to go but sub Tope Obadeyi could only smash the spinning ball well over the top. Totally Tope.
With 20 minutse to go it was game over. Canice Carroll's first touch was a neat clipped ball into the chest of fellow sub Jon Obika. Payne nicked the ball and once again played the perfect pass as Ruffels- having a stormer- ran into the box at speed and prodded powerfully past Wilson to make it 2-0.
Tempers flared as Oldham tried to find a way back into the game but there are some wise heads in this new look United squad and they saw things through with consumate professionalism. It might even have been three when Obika outmuscled his man but couldn't force the ball beyond Wilson after 87 minutes, but no matter.
Nobody get carried away: one win does not make a season. But a win on the first day, a clean sheet and three points on the board: you can't moan can you?
Very enjoyable, very impressive and the perfect start. Remember that opening day win at Portsmouth? Come and join us next Saturday when the U's welcome Pompey to Grenoble Road.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures Darrell Fisher, stats by OPTA
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