It was a first for me too. I couldn't let the player go. He means too much to the team at this point in time and he took it surprisingly well.
8 May 2015 – Luton Town (22-9-15, 6th place) v Oxford United (22-10-14, 5th place)
Sky Bet League Two Playoff Semifinal First Leg – Kenilworth Road, Luton
Referee: Lee Probert
It had rained the whole previous night. As the Oxford coach turned onto Ivy Road for the final approach to Luton’s grand old stadium, Kyle wondered what the pitch would look like.
The answer was, not very good.
As the team headed to the changing room, Kyle went to the pitch for an inspection. A discussion with Flitcroft and referee Lee Probert led to the decision Kyle expected – the pitch was a mess but the match would be played.
“Wear your long studs today, lads, you’ll need them out there,” Kyle advised. “You’ve got a slick track today and it’s going to be wet and muddy, especially in the penalty areas.”
Luton’s pitch, not the artificial one which had caused such controversy in the 1980s, was a mess. It didn’t bode well for teams which liked to get the ball onto the floor – but Kyle had built Oxford to be a direct team and as such he felt the attack wouldn’t be too badly hindered provided the team had decent footing.
That was debatable, though, as the teams prepared for kickoff and made sure that the right studs were on their boots.
“Don’t let this pitch bother you,” Kyle advised them. “I want you to keep your minds set on the things that got you this far rather than what the pitch looks like. You have done brilliantly to get here, you have earned your place and you have earned the advantage your play gives you in this tie. Don’t be the player who gives that advantage away. I know you can do this – and as always, work hard for yourselves, work hard for your teammates and above all, work hard for your shirt. It’s a team game, lads. Remember that and we’ll head home happy. Hands in, and let’s go.”
The players formed a circle in the middle of the changing room, Wright led them in a brief cheer and they lined up in the hallway.
It was there that Kyle had his first face-to-face meeting with Flitcroft after the controversy of the week. He didn’t see anything in it and neither had the Luton boss, so the handshake between rivals was heartfelt if perfunctory.
They weren’t going to wish each other luck, but neither were they going to be at each other’s throats. The lines began to move and the teams took to the pitch in an annoying drizzle that seemed ready to add to the soup on the pitch.
Kyle had one more surprise for Luton. He started Potts at right back, though he hadn’t played in that position as a member of the Us.
He had been scheming for a way to have Potts and Skarz on the pitch at the same time, with both of them primarily left full backs. But Potts could also play the right, and after a conversation not only with Potts but also Meades and Grimshaw, Kyle made up his mind. The West Ham man would play on Oxford’s right flank with Meades and Grimshaw thus freed up for other duties.
Kyle felt it made Oxford more flexible. There was certainly no harm in that.
As one might have expected, the match began tentatively. The poor footing had a lot to do with that and while the players tried to figure out how to make cuts and find space without sliding, play was very ragged. Oxford earned the first corner in eight minutes when Potts’ cross was headed behind by Hatters skipper Steve McNulty.
The first good chance of the match came a few minutes later through the home team’s midfielder Jordi Ortega. Only the finish was lacking on a wonderful little sequence of passes and Ashdown collected far more comfortably than he should have on a weak effort from near the penalty spot.
Jayden Stockley’s aim was thrown off by Dunkley, who charged down his effort in nineteen minutes and deflected it behind for another corner, but Oxford was starting to find its feet a bit more and was starting to look brighter.
Wright, who had suddenly turned into a goal-scoring machine in the latter stages of the season, nearly put Oxford on the board first with a great header from their first corner of match, only to see Ortega clear off the line to keep the game scoreless.
That brought the crowd into the game and if nothing else, it took some of the damp out of the air. The Us were finally punching at their weight and the pace of the game picked up considerably.
Ortega celebrated his great defensive work by nearly getting booked for ramming Maddison to the floor just outside the penalty area, but the midfielder missed the free kick wide and play resumed.
For all his skill, Maddison hadn’t hit the target on a set piece for as long as Kyle could remember – and fixing the set piece issue would probably put the finishing touches on a fine lower-league attacking group. They needed a dead ball specialist, but since Oxford really didn’t have one, the hope was that the teenager would somehow figure things out.
Nathan Doyle stymied Hoban with a clean block tackle six minutes before the break and Wright returned the favor, seeming to slide nearly to Watford while successfully challenging Luke Rooney just outside the penalty area. The slide mark he left was nearly ten feet long, Kyle judged, and that didn’t bode well for the rest of the match since it had started to rain again.
The best Oxford move of the half came right before the interval, when Lee-Barrett was called into action twice, first to save from Hoban and then again from Hoskins, who stole a backpass and went in alone, only to be robbed by the keeper.
Probert blew for halftime and Kyle had the chance to address his men, happy with the way they had come on over the latter part of the first half even if they hadn’t scored.
“Again, you’ve put yourselves in position to succeed,” he reminded them. “I’m pleased with what I’ve seen here but there is better in you. If you come out of this place with a win today you’ve got one leg in the final. You know that, but I do not want you to forget it.”
Yet, the second half started as slowly as the first. It was past the hour mark before the first decent chance arrived, after Ortega had left in favor of Pelly Ruddock. It came through MacDonald, who was left unmarked after Lee-Barrett pushed Hoban’s rebound right onto his foot. Yet the Scot fired into the side netting, throwing his head back in frustration and jabbing at his head as he ran back up the park.
Flitcroft went to his bench again in 69 minutes, burning both his remaining substitutions. Off came Stockley for Ricky Miller, and off came Andy Parry for veteran Abdoulaye Faye. The 37-year old Senegalese was on for stability and leadership and provided both.
Oxford was getting opportunities, but from range, as Luton moved to a 5-1-2-2 alignment, stuffing the back line with five and an anchor man to defend in depth. It was a safe decision on a sloppy pitch.
Yet, Flitcroft was out of substitutions and Kyle held the upper hand in that regard. Unfortunately, it was a substitution Kyle didn’t
make that cost his team dearly.
It was O’Dowda, who took off on a run down the left flank in 77 minutes only to overstride, slipping on the wet turf with his ankle turned. Grabbing at his leg, O’Dowda rolled back and forth on the pitch and Kyle nearly went into apoplexy.
He was about to take off O’Dowda, and had he moved a minute sooner, the valuable winger would have been just fine. Now it was too late, and Hylton came on for him as O’Dowda was carried off.
He never liked to lose a player, but O’Dowda was one-third of the best midfield trio in League Two and was a vital part of the Oxford attack. Hylton slotted into his spot on the left, and Kyle removed the exhausted Wright in favor of Andy Whing, with a note to Dunkley to drop the defensive line back to compensate for Whing’s rather noticeable lack of pace.
Molasses would move faster than Andy Whing on this pitch on this day, so Kyle was taking no chances. And then Oxford was celebrating, as Luton made a ridiculous defensive error.
It was Michael Harriman who made it, dispossessing MacDonald on the right and then rolling a back pass toward Lee-Barrett which only made it as far as Hoban, who ran onto it and scored from a sharp angle to the keeper’s left ten minutes from time.
It was a lucky goal, and sometimes those are the kinds you have to have to win matches on the edge.
The relief was palpable on the Oxford bench. It was a lead, away from home, with ten minutes to play on a sloppy pitch. Kyle immediately signaled for Grimshaw, bringing him on for MacDonald and changing to 4-2-3-1.
Ssewankambo provided the next good chance, though, in 86 minutes, with a scorching half-volley that Lee-Barrett palmed away with a desperation dive to his right. That sent Luton away, with Luke Wilkinson finding Scott Griffiths down the left, and his ball into the right channel split Potts and Whing like they had been dissected.
Ricky Miller ran onto it, left the tiring Potts in his wake, and beat Ashdown to the wide side three minutes from time to get Luton level and completely deflate the Oxford bench.
While the crowd went understandably nuts, Kyle was left to remark that even though you do the best job you can to hold the lead, sometimes the other guy makes a great play. In Miller’s case, it was the first one of his season.
The 26-year old striker had played for a staggering seventeen different clubs in the in ten years including five stints with Stamford, and this was his first goal for club number eighteen, Luton.
Not only that, it was the first goal he had ever scored in the Football League, and it had come at the worst possible time for Oxford United.
Five minutes later, it was all over. A one-nil win had been well and truly thrown away, and it would all come down to the home leg now.
Oxford United: Ashdown: Potts, Dunkley, Wright (captain, Whing 77), Skarz, Ssewankambo, MacDonald (Grimshaw 81), Maddison, O’Dowda (injured, Hylton 77), Hoban, Hoskins. Unused subs: Clarke, Bevans, Meades, Mullins.
Luton Town 1 (Ricky Miller 87)
Oxford United 1 (Hoban 80)
A – 10,110, Kenilworth Road, Luton
Man of the Match: Ricky Miller, Luton (MR 8.0)
GUMP: Patrick Hoban
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