A goal with just minutes remaining denied the Blues a famous draw away at Reading FC U18s on Wednesday. Having fought back from the disappointment of conceding two early goals, Oxford could have nicked it themselves in the second-half, and were unfortunate to concede when Reading’s left-winger cut inside and curled a delightful shot from the edge of the area past the helpless Tom Haigh. With a few senior players missing too it was a performance that higlighted the squad’s strength of character.
As the Blues turned up at Premier League side Reading’s training ground, they were greeted by U18 head coach David Dodds, a former Blues coach just over a decade ago. Justifiably nervous ahead of the game, Oxford were facing one of the best academy sides in the country: Reading U18s have lost just once all season and were ten games unbeaten, including a 3-0 demolition of Arsenal. Yet the Blues had their own unbeaten record to uphold in this fixture and were certainly not going to relinquish it without a battle.
Despite starting the game well and putting together some dangerous counter-attacking moves, two long-range efforts all of a sudden saw the Blues 2-0 down. First a snap-shot from the edge of the D beat the unsighted Haigh in goal, before an effort from 25 yards left Haigh grasping at thin air as the ball looped over him and into the net.
It would have been easy for the Blues to let their heads drop and capitulate, but they yet again showed the kind of grit and determination that has proved a vital part of their success this season. Not to be disheartened by the early scoreline, they defended diligently and doggedly, whilst looking to use the pace of Ed Grimer and Ezra Rubenstein on the wings to hit Reading on the counter. And after 34 minutes they were justly rewarded when high pressing led to Grimer intercepting a ball on the edge of the Reading box, racing clear and incisively finishing low into the far corner. Almost straight from the restart, however, a rash challenge from Mark Jamison – who peformed superbly in his first game for 11 months – gave Reading the chance to restore their two-advantage from the spot, but their striker saw his effort rebound off the post.
As Oxford grew into the game after the break, they began to create more chances and exert concerted pressure on the Reading defence. The home side found it more and more difficult to carve any clear-cut chances out of their superior possession, and the Blues’ equaliser after 53 minutes was exactly what the away team deserved – and what a way to score! Grimer received the ball around twenty years out on the right edge of the area, shifted the ball out of his feet and made a yard of space past his man, before hitting a rasping shot that soared into the top corner and gave the keeper no chance. It was to be Grimer’s last action as he was forced off with injury, but what an impact he had made.
Substitute Kieron Gilfoy made his debut for the Blues and added renewed bite to the Oxford midfield, and in truth the match could have swung either way in the final fifteen minutes, with Julian Austin having several shots blocked or saved, whilst centre-backs Jamison and Bassett made some vital last-ditch challenges. Reading’s winner was galling to take after such a sterling performance by the Blues, who can at least take some consolation from the fact that all three goals they conceded were long-range strikes of high quality. Some of these players may well be playing in the Prewmier League some time soon, and the Blues can take heart from the fact they pushed the stars of tomorrow as hard as anybody this season.
Academy director Eamonn Dolan introduced himself to the Blues post-match and praised the lads for their attitude and performance, particularly singling out left-back Adam Fellows, who was in imperious form and rarely beaten all day. Dolan’s warm words were gratefully received by the Oxford side and will hopefully inspire the Blues to maintain their unbeaten run in competitive fixtures this term, as they look to clinch a league and cup double and maintain their Brookes Varsity trophy.