Oxford United Under-18s took a 2-0 lead against Luton Town in the EFL Youth Alliance Southern Area Cup final at the Kassam Stadium this afternoon through second-half goals from Dejon Noel-Williams and Albie Hopkins. However, the Hatters struck back with goals from Josh Neufville and a last-minute header from captain Joe Mead to take the game to penalties, which Luton won after 16 spot kicks.
The first half was an open and entertaining affair, with both sides passing the ball crisply and looking to exploit any weaknesses in their opponents. The visitors came closest in the 20th minute when Connor Tomlinson got goal side of the Oxford defence, but goalkeeper Max harris did brilliantly to deny him with an outstretched leg.
United had already come close with an Owen James free kick that just cleared the bar but then Luton started to take control and Arthur Read had three shots from distance that all went close. For the visitors Jake Pegg tried an audacious shot from 40 yards after spotting Harris off his line but the keeper did well to get back and tip the ball over the bar.
In the 35th minute United came close when a James Cowan free kick from 20 yards came back off the crossbar, but despite plenty of good approach play from both sides neither were able to break the deadlock before the interval.
It didn't take long for United to get their noses in front at the start of the second half after a bright opening. Hopkins showed quick feet to get the ball in to Noel-Williams inside the Luton area but it looked as though the chance had gone as a defender got back to close him down. However, the United striker, one of five scholars to have been offered a professional contract for next season, managed to stick out a leg to prod the ball between Tiernan Parker's legs.
The goal brought an immediate response from Luton and Ryan Crooks was in the right place to clear a Michael Shambalo shot off the line after Harris was beaten. However, United doubled their lead on the hour when Noel-Williams turned provider for Hopkins, whose angled shot was too strong for the Luton keeper.
This time, Luton's immediate response reaped dividends as the ball fell invitingly for Josh Neufville whose shot beat Harris and found the net at the far post.
This was the signal for the visitors to step up a gear and they put United under pressure, restricting the U's to breakaways. From one break, a shot by right-back Dan Carr had Parker scrambling across goal to tip the ball wide for a corner.
But United were unable to take advantage and it was from a 90th-minute corner at the other end that Luton equalised as Mead's downward header beat the covering defenders to set up a penalty shoot-out.
Luton took first and scored before Jack Stevens's effort was saved. Harris then saved well from Scott Belgrove. Noel-Williams, Hopkins, James, Cowan, Baker and Carr were all on target for the U's but with Luton equally clinical from the spot it was skipper Berry-Hargreaves whose penalty was saved by Parker to send Luton through to the national final where they will face Wigan Athletic, who beat Hartlepool 5-0 in the Northern Area final.
United: Harris, Carr, Berry-Hargreaves, Baker, Chilcott, Hopkins, Cowan, McCreadie, Crooks (Lofthouse 70 (Stevens 90+3)), James, Noel-Williams
Report by Martin Brodetsky, pictures by Darrell Fisher