Oxford United's campaign in the Leasing.com Trophy began with a comeback win tonight at the Kassam Stadium against Norwich City's under-21 side. The Canaries were in front through a Shae Hutchinson goal but Cameron Brannagan blasted his side back into contention before Shandon Baptiste curled a delightful winner with five minutes left to ensure that his side made the perfect start to the newly named competition.
As has become the custom in this competition, whoever the sponsors, United threw in a number of their promising youngsters, including Jack Stevens in goal and Kevin Berkoe at left back. He introduced himself with a thunderous tackle in some nervous opening exchanges and generally looked good on the left of a solid back four well protected by Jamie Hanson.
Hanson’s engine-room partner Baptiste acted as playmaker, with debutant Dan Agyei a willing runner up front, although it was the visitors who created the first chance of the game, a 12th-minute snap shot from Tom Scully that flew well wide of the watching Stevens’ goal.
The Canaries were bright on the ball as you would expect, and pacey striker William Hondermarck was constantly looking to sprint in behind the home defence (Hondermarck, get set, go) but John Mousinho and Rob Dickie knew just too much, while the excellent Sam Long made one or two fine blocks and gradually the U’s started to take over.
Rob Hall saw a first shot smothered at source but was also sharper and fitter than in previous games. His drive on 24 produced a reflex save from the startled Billy Johnson in the Norwich goal, and with Agyei and Baptiste also picking holes in the penalty area United were doing well going forward but hadn’t tested the keeper enough in the first half, Hall illustrating that with a 45th-minute drive which went wide off a defender before Baptiste, ominously as it turned out, curled in the best effort of the half with the last kick, seeing Johnson this time fly to his left to keep it out.
United continued in that vein after the break. Agyei received the ball 30 yards from goal and showed his turn of pace to beat his marker but his low shot was saved, and five minutes later he was again denied when Johnson reached up to push his goalbound header over the bar. The problem remained that Norwich had pace to burn and were ideally set up to exploit any space if United over-committed to attack.
That was what created the opening goal on 64 minutes. Hondermarck ran at the defence then released a perfect through ball for Hutchinson who stayed remarkably calm, drawing Stevens out of goal then slotting low and true inside the right-hand post. Against the flow of the game but a perfect 'away goal' all the same.
United needed to chase the game and Sykes, Brannagan and youngster Kyran Lofthouse were each given chances to get their side back into the game, coming off the bench and helping United regain the initiative.
Hall seemed to have fluffed the best opportunity when he met a diving header with his left ear rather than his forehead, sending the ball wide when he really should have done better, but no matter, United were soon level, even if it did come in slightly odd circumstances.
The game was held up for four minutes while the superb Dickie received treatment after a clash of heads. The restart was an uncontested drop ball which Brannagan controlled, moved to his right and then smashed past Johnson from the edge of the box. If the Trophy is to help young players develop then those in Norwich colours will at least have learned to stand in front when defending a drop ball!
There wasn't much they could do about the winner though. Perhaps sliding in to try and intercept a crossfield pass did open up the space, but still Baptiste had plenty to do before he moved the ball on to his right foot and almost nonchalantly floated his shot across Johnson and into the far corner to make it 2-1 and give United maximum points.
A deserved win - few would argue surely that the better side won on the night? - and a good start. There are more important games to come though, starting at Fleetwood on Saturday...
Report by Chris Williams, pictures Steve Daniels, stats by OPTA