Oxford United once again signalled their intent in the Checkatrade Trophy with a resounding 6-2 win away at Stevenage tonight. Two goals from Rob Hall and strikes from James Henry, Joe Rothwell, Jon Obika and Jack Payne gave the U's the perfect start in a competition in which they have reached Wembley for the last two seasons.
There were plenty of changes and a debut for Dwight Tiendalli at right back, allowing Christian Ribeiro to move inside and partner Aaron Martin at centre-half, with Canice Carroll completing a new-look back four. Rothwell and Xemi Fernandez also formed a new partnership in central midfield but it was the familiar wing duo of Payne and Hall who gave their side a half-time lead.
The first few minutes were a million miles an hour as the two sides settled into their work. Stevenage, unbeaten in the league so far, then raised the pace and forced the first opening which Beautyman tucked wide from an inviting Alex Samuel cross after 17 minutes. Tom Pett so nearly turned heartbreaker with a shot on 18 that forced a corner but United’s reprieve was short as from that dead ball Eastwood’s punch was returned with interest from the edge of the box and Beautyman helped it on its way past the keeper to make it 1-0. It was as good as it got for the home side.
Rather than panic, United stuck to their plan and just raised their tempo a touch. One flowing move took them the length of the pitch and involved just about every outfield player and the characteristic passing game was evident once again. You need a little bit of aggression too though and on half an hour it was Rothwell who showed it to rob his man firmly but fairly and set the U’s on their way. Henry had floated inside and took the ball forward and gratefully accepted the invitation to shoot with a perfectly placed low effort that flew past 42-year-old keeper Chris Day to make it 1-1.
It was another strong challenge that led to the second. Hall robbed a hesitant defender and Payne then sent Hall on his way. Racing clear, the home defence were never going to catch him and his finish was emphatic, firing left footed across Day to make it 2-1 at the break.
Xemi had done well, winning his challenges and neat on the ball, while Rothwell had been knitting things together neatly. Eastwood made his usual good save to keep the lead intact early in the second period but then two goals in two minutes ended the game as a contest.
On 49 minutes it was 3-1 and job all but done. Payne challenged in the air and Obika picked up the loose ball, racing across the defence and the edge of the box before curling a brilliant finish past Day from 25 yards out.
It was hard to decide which of the three goals had been easiest on the eye but the Goal of the Match contest was thankfully decided on 51 by Hall. More clever approach play, a lay-off from Henry and Hall smashed the ball first time over Day and into the top corner for a peach of a goal.
Mind you, it probably robbed Rothwell of the goal of the day prize because he then made it five with another outstanding strike. Tiendalli and Henry picked the lock but Rothwell had a wall of Stevenage defenders in front of him as he roared into the box. No problem. A dummy, a shift of balance and two men left wondering before he went before Day who was beaten yet again by a precise finish inside the near post.
On 63 minutes it was 6-1 as Henry got things rolling again, Rothwell turned 360 degrees to wrong-foot the despairing defence and Payne did the rest with yet another unerring drive into the bottom left corner to compete a rotten night for Day.
It was United's best away result since a 6-0 away win at Gravesend and Northfleet in 1962 and the only question now was whether I would get to use my fantastic 'Sevenage' headline. I was undone by the brilliant United fans though - chanting 'the score's on his back' at Day, Stevenage's number 16 was complete and utter genius.
United played keep ball, there was a debut for young midfielder Shandon Baptiste, a cameo from James Roberts who fired just wide with his first touch, and all was well with the world despite a consolation for the home side when Alex Samuel rifled into the roof of the net on 82 minutes to make it 2-6 and ruin the Oxford fans' new song.
No need for wild celebrations, but this was encouraging stuff indeed, highly enjoyable and Pep Clotet's belief in this squad of players was fully vindicated.
We move on to Milton Keynes on Saturday. Can't wait.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Darrell Fisher, stats by OPTA
HIghights and reaction in iFollow