Oxford United started their Checkatrade Trophy campaign with a thorough 3-0 win over Fulham Under 21s this evening at the Kassam Stadium. Goals from Sam Smith, Ricky Holmes and 16-year-old Slavi Spasov on his debut did the trick as United made it four games unbeaten in all competitions.
United nearly opened the scoring in just the fourth minute when Holmes showed superb technique to volley a shot goalwards from the edge of the box only to see it crash back into play off the crossbar with Stahl stranded. They dominated the first half and might have scored through Smith with a header and another effort from the excellent Holmes before they finally took the lead after 31 minutes.
Fabio Lopes, just 16 and looking very mature just behind Smith up front, shielded the ball before laying it back for James Henry. His effort was half blocked but ran through for Smith who calmly planted it past Stahl for his first United goal.
The Fulham youngsters had looked neat on the ball but short on ideas as to how to get beyond the United backline of Tony McMahon, Curtis Nelson, Rob Dickie and Luke Garbutt, while Lopes might have opened his account in the 40th minute when Smith cut the ball back but the youngster couldn’t force the ball past a sliding defender.
Henry should also have scored right on half time when Stahl slapped away a Brannagan blast but only as far as Henry, who couldn’t bring a difficult bouncing ball down quickly enough to steer his effort past the keeper. Nonetheless, the U’s were full value for their half-time lead, having had an astonishing 76% possession, according to the official stats.
They were then handed a man advantage for most of the second period when Lopes, a willing runner, chased down a through ball and was beaten to it by Stahl who unfortunately handled the ball outside his area. Ref Craig Hicks had little option other than the red card and although Holmes's free kick came to nothing, Fulham were now a man down.
The last thing you need when you are a team of rookies is players like Henry and Holmes coming at you and just before the hour it was the former who started off a flowing move by outmuscling his man deep inside the United half then moving the ball for Smith to run with. Fulham backed off, Smith fed the sprinting Holmes and his perfect finish clipped the base of the right post before rolling gently into the net, with sub keeper George Wickens helpless. Three goals in three games for Holmes.
Wickens did make one very good save when Smith almost beat him at his near post on 62 before the two scorers were replaced by Jon Obika and debutant Spasov, giving United two 16-year-olds on the pitch and once again highlighting the fantastic work of the Academy, who continue to bring through young players for the first team - Sam Long underlining that with a late cameo as well.
Lopes, who grew into the game with every passing minute, sprayed a magnificent pass for Henry on 76 that Wickens thwarted by rushing off his line to block the shot. Spasov, of Bulgarian descent and a first-year scholar with the U's, glanced a McMahon cross wide and also hit the post with a late strike and there will certainly be plenty more opportunities for both to show what they can do at this level.
Spasov's night was capped though on 86 when he scored the debut goal he can only have dreaemd of. Obika won the penalty, powering past a defender and being bundled over. While he picked himself up and discussed with McMahon who should take the penalty, Spasov was quietly ushered forward and made it a night he will never forget by calmly slotting the penalty inside the left-hand post for the first of many goals to come.
Thoroughly professional all over the park, United now move on to face Northampton Town at home and Wycombe Wanderers away in their remaining two games in the group.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Darrell Fisher, stats by OPTA