Oxford United’s under 18s sealed the EFL South West Youth Alliance title with a 1-1 draw at Portsmouth this afternoon.
Sitting 6 points clear with two games to go in the campaign, Leon Blackmore-Such and Chris Hackett's young charges knew that a point would be enough to secure the Youth Team their first League title in twelve years and their first ever Championship since achieving academy status back in 2010.
The young yellows started the brighter of the two teams but were forced into an early change when centre-back Freddie Niblett had to be replaced after suffering a bang on the head in an innocuous looking challenge clearing a Portsmouth corner. Captain Aaron McCreadie dropped into an unaccustomed defensive role which also saw Oxford change to a 4-4-1-1 shape with substitute Jack Stevens playing as a deep-lying striker.
Oxford had much the better of the early play and should have scored when a wicked right footed delivery from James Cowan was met by Fabio Lopes at the backpost but the young forward was unable to find a finish. Local lad Kyran Lofthouse continued to show the form that saw him sign his first professional contract last month and his powerful and direct running down the right hand side was a constant threat to the Portsmouth backline.
Playing at Portsmouth's first team training ground, Oxford continued to have the better of the play but fell behind midway through the first half when a hopeful cross from deep was misjudged by goalkeeper Max Evans and fell in at the back post. Shortly before half time Stevens should have done better when another Lofthouse cross saw him mistime his finish as the ball looped over the bar from 4 yards out.
1-0 down at the break and following a robust team talk from coach Leon Blackmore-Such at half time, the young Yellows came out firing in the second half and, in a sign of things to come, left back Michael Elechi burst forward powerfully past the Portsmouth right back only to be denied at the near post in the first minute of the half.
Oxford's second change on 60 minutes saw Ryan Crooks introduced for Jordan Edwards allowing Lopes to resume in his more accustomed central role and it was the young Portuguese who continued to look the most likely to score when his acrobatic half volley from 12 yards was tipped narrowly wide by the home goalkeeper.
Left-sided centre half, Nico Jones, signed from Fulham in the summer, continued to build his reputation with another assured, calm performance and, as one of seven first years in the starting line up, underlined again the potential of this young group.
Oxford continued to press and with time running down it was Elechi again who burst past his full back and was hauled down to win a penalty for his side. Lopes stepped up with the season on the line and coolly sent the Portsmouth keeper the wrong way to bring the yellows level and within touching distance of the title.
As time expired the young yellows side saw time out professionally and secured the league title despite their nearest rivals, Bournemouth having won 4-1 earlier in the day.
Congratulations to all involved on securing their first target of what could be a memorable season.
Evans, Sampford, Niblett (Stevens), Jones, Elechi, McCreadie, Chambers-Parillon, Cowan, Lopes, Edwards, Lofthouse (Crooks).
Fans will get the chance to congratulate the boys next week when they take on AFC Bournemouth at Court Place Farm next Wednesday, January 16th, in the fourth round of the FA Youth Cup.
The U’s enjoyed a superb win on penalties away at Burnley in the last round and now face Bournemouth- their closest challengers in the league as well - in a game at the home of Oxford City, with kick off at 7pm.
With the young U’s in great form, and with no midweek game for the first team next week, we would love fans to come along and get behind them for what should be a great night of cup football.