After forcing a thrilling 2-2 draw, Cambridge United’s youngsters held their nerves from the spot to dispatch Oxford United and advance from the Third Round of the FA Youth Cup at the Abbey Stadium...
In a frantic second-half, a Saleem Akanbi barnstormer was cancelled out by strikes from Gatlin O’Donker and Adam Smith. Just when the visitors looked destined to secure their passage into the next stage, Kai Yearn coolly slotted home on the cusp of full-time. Galvanised, the U’s remained composed from 12 yards to secure a 4-2 shootout victory and earn a home tie against Category One outfit Leeds United in their first appearance in the Fourth Round since 2016/17.
Both sides had to show real character when navigating their path to tonight’s clash. Cambridge edged out Southend United and cruised to victory over Corinthian-Casuals, whereas Oxford dispatched Sutton Common Rovers and overcame Reading City. In their respective divisions, the hosts were 2nd and flying - falling to the solitary defeat in their opening 11 games. The visitors were situated 5th and eager to generate momentum after a run of one win in seven.
In a physical start to proceedings, with plenty of battles in the air contested, the visitors started the brightest and tested the U’s backline in the 6th minute. Ben Watts’ jinking run into the penalty area caused havoc, pulling the trigger from close-range but was denied by a strong block from captain Harvey Beckett.
Yearn stamped some authority six minutes later – after being played in, the England U17 lashed an attempt towards the bottom right corner which Eddie Brearey clawed out for a corner.
The boys in amber had the ball in the back of the net on the 14th minute when an excellent looping header from 10 yards by Dan Barton was met by a racing Brandon Njoku who poked home. However, the striker’s finish was disallowed for offside.
With their tails up, Jimmy Unwin’s side proved menacing in every attack. First Year scholar Barton’s pace and trickery cut open Oxford down the right before he whipped in a teasing cross for Saleem Akanbi who fired a header goal bounds but Brearey darted back to catch the attempt.
It was the visitors’ turn to bulge the onion bag on the 40th minute when Smith rounded off a nice passage of play, but the opponents’ well-worked play was chalked off.
The last opportunity of the half was carved out by last season’s top scorer Glenn McConnell, who did well to twist and turn inside the box on 42 before firing an attempt from 12 yards which looked destined to trickle in before a body on the line prevented the shot.
It concluded an evenly-matched first period – with the hosts in the ascendency in terms of attempts after conjuring up well-worked spells in the final third.
Perhaps rueing their opportunities from the first half, the U’s more than made up for it on the 47th minute when Akanbi picked his spot from just under 30 yards and fired a sublime strike into the top left corner to break deadlock and hand his side the perfect start.
The lead was short-lived, nonetheless, as Oxford equalised ten minutes later. A fumbled shot from Josh Anifowose was on a plate for O’Donker who pounced to place home with power to level the sides.
Both sides were doing a good job of cancelling each other out as the half progressed. With one eye keen to grab the advantage, the other was focused on remaining assuring defensively. The next scare came on the 69th minute when Anifowose’s deep cross from the right was met by Tom Finch who dived and punched the danger away – before bouncing off Smith and flying inches wide of the crossbar.
A United free-kick from the far right on 77 was cleared by goalkeeper Brearey, but fell to Beckett who after composing himself couldn’t convert from the six-yard box as the attempt fizzed wide.
This kickstarted a dominant period for Oxford - who rampantly turned on the gas. First, Josh Johnson scampered forwards from an angle and scampered forwards from an angle and cut into the middle but leaned back and couldn’t generate enough curl as it went well wide of Finch’s left post on 81. O’Donker came close to grabbing a brace moments later after he couldn’t connect with Smith’s teasing cross.
The barrage of pressure from the South West outfit paid off on the 85th minute when Smith picked the ball up on the corner of the box, turning and applaudingly drilling the ball into the bottom left corner past a helpless Finch.
In need of a rapid reaction to the setback, the hosts found a new lease of life at a critical moment when, deep into added time, a moment of magic from United’s youngest-ever senior goalscorer Yearn helped level matters as he exquisitely slotted into the bottom corner to spark delirium and galvanise the boys.
Extra-time was a real indication that both sides were showing fatigue after a draining 90 minutes packed with grit and determination. With no clear-cut chances, the game remained very much in balance whilst it creeped towards a penalty shoot-out to help determine the sides.
The U’s were hoping experience of their First Round success from the spot at Roots Hall would put them in good stead as they stepped up. That proved evident as McConnell, Yearn, Braithwaite and Winterbone all dispatched their penalties before Finch sealed success by saving Mac Masters’ decisive penalty as the young U’s ensured the cup run continued.
Unwin’s side will look to build on their momentum in their next encounter when they travel to Boots and Laces on Tuesday (14th December) for a league tie against Southend United.
Cambridge United: Finch, Tarpey (Lott, 100), Beckett, Nzeh (Winterbone, 74), Hipwell, Hoddle (Braithwaite, 82), McConnell, Barton, Yearn, Akanbi, Njoku (Usman, 88)
Subs Not Used: Jones, Brumby, Chipps
Oxford United: Brearey, Watt, Golding, Nosakhare, Owens, Smith, Masters, Anifowose (Sankoh, 111), Coe (Davis-Stephenson, 94), O’Donker, Johnson
Subs Not Used: Giles, Barnsley, Franklin, Tiamuna, Zabeli
Bookings: Masters, Johnson, Watt