“Good work,” Kyle said. “You had better chances, you had a lot more of the ball, and you did a great job keeping them away from Jamie. Right now this is your tie to win. We’re going to need to find a way through five at the back to get it, though, so Derek has some ideas for you. But as always, keep your eyes on the prize. I love how you are working for each other. Keep doing that and let’s celebrate when this is done.”
Fazackerley stepped to the front of the room and the veteran assistant manager outlined a new tactical plan to deal with five at the back. It was going to be a numbers game up front, and it involved both Ssewankambo and better ball movement, but not necessarily in that order.
Flitcroft’s plan was simple: make Oxford come forward, hit them on the counter and smash and grab. They would have to defend well, of course, but every away playoff team has to do that. As long as the Us shot from distance, they were no threat.
Fazackerley wanted the ball deep into the six-yard box and Kyle concurred. The idea was to make a little mayhem in front of Lee-Barrett, since the Us were getting so much of the possession. That meant Ssewankambo would need to be a true box-to-box midfielder and he would need to help make something happen when he got forward.
It had to be someone, but that player couldn’t be Whing, whose lack of pace would be cruelly exposed in such a scenario. He was playing well shielding the back line so there was no harm in keeping him in that role.
There was a decidedly tense atmosphere as the second half kicked off. There was all to play for but Dunkley limped to the touchline almost immediately after kickoff after initiating contact with Paul Benson and coming out the loser for it.
The defender could continue, though, and then it was Stockley coming off with a knock in 52 minutes, replaced by Nathan Oduwa, the teenage Spurs loanee having not featured in the first leg. The Nigerian slotted in next to Benson and became Wright’s responsibility.
He had just gotten comfortable when Oxford came forward for the first time in the half. Maddison earned a throw in the Luton half and took it himself, finding Skarz ahead of him. His ball into the area seemed to disappear into a mob of players.
And then there was Robinson pointing to the penalty spot, with Potts on the ground near it, underneath Luke Wilkinson, who had put him there. Everyone in the Kassam Stadium seemed to lose their mind at the same moment, for different reasons.
Faye rushed the referee and was immediately carded for dissent, while Ortega barely avoided a second card at the same time.
But then, Whing had a job to do.
The player who couldn’t be brought forward for extra numbers due to lack of pace now had all the time he needed, from twelve yards, to try and break the deadlock.
Lee-Barrett shifted from side to side on his goal line, trying to make the veteran defender guess the direction of his dive. He even tried to get the referee to order a re-spotting of the ball to try to throw Whing off his stroke, risking a card in the process. Robinson warned the keeper, who returned to his place to await events.
Whing kept his eyes forward the entire time, not giving away his idea, and then sent Lee-Barrett the wrong way. Both players went to their left, and in Lee-Barrett’s case, it was the wrong direction. The penalty was perfect, perhaps unstoppable even if the keeper had guessed correctly, and Oxford led in 52 minutes.
Whing stood in the middle of the penalty area, arms crossed on his chest while the Mail stand fans broke into a ribald oldie-but-goodie chant regarding Posh Spice, her husband, and her purported sexual preference for the Oxford defender.
And just like that, Flitcroft’s match plan changed. Luton had to come out and play now, and Hylton finally got his revenge against Connolly from the first half, sending the Luton man flying after catching him in possession in 55 minutes. He got the same warning from Robinson that Connolly had gotten after his first foul against the Oxford man.
Ssewankambo then moved up and found Hoban with an artful little ball in 59 minutes that sent the Irishman in free and clear – until Wilkinson caught him from behind with a perfect tackle, one that took no small amount of stones to make from a player who had already conceded a penalty.
Oxford surged forward now, the 4-2-3-1 holding its shape nicely while creating chances through Maddison, who found he liked playing a bit further forward. His dummy off a Skarz cross created a chance for MacDonald, but the Scot shot wide in 63 minutes, putting paid to that chance.
It was at that point that Dunkley really started to drag, his knock from the start of the half really affecting him. Kyle walked down to the edge of his tactical area to where players warming up were heading up and down the touchline.
He grabbed Johnny Mullins, who looked a bit surprised, but he was the man Kyle had in mind.
“Swap positions with Andy,” Kyle said. “I want you shielding the back line. Tell Isak I want him to drop back like in the first half. You two are going to break their attack before it hits Jamie. Have you been watching?”
“Yeah, boss!” Mullins replied, trying to shoulder his way past Kyle to the fourth official. The manager liked the aggressiveness, but he wasn’t done yet.
“Do not let Oduwa behind you unless you see a free central defender between Oduwa and goal,” Kyle said, straining to make himself heard over the din. Then he smiled.
“Or better yet, just don’t let him beat you,” Kyle grinned. No sense overthinking it.
He mussed Mullins’ hair and gently pushed him toward the fourth official. Bankes held up the board, bringing off Dunkley to a nice ovation from the fans.
Cheyenne Dunkley had had a hard time breaking into the eleven when Kyle arrived. Now he was a big part of the plan, and his handshake with the boss was heartfelt as he headed to the bench and the training staff.
Almost immediately Griffiths crossed for Benson for Luton, but Wright threw the striker off his stroke and he headed wide. Mullins showed he had been listening early on by outmuscling Oduwa for a header from a long punt by Faye as the match passed seventy minutes.
Jake Howells came on for Griffiths in 75 minutes for Luton and immediately Oxford surged forward, with MacDonald’s piledriver missing in 77 minutes as Lee-Barrett got low enough to turn it behind for a corner.
Luton cleared its lines, but only as far as Maddison, who sprayed the ball to the right for MacDonald. The Scot’s cutback found Ssewankambo, the late arriver, and the Swede took two steps to his right before shooting.
His rising shot cannoned off the bar, and fell at Hoban’s feet for the easiest goal of his life. Twelve minutes from time, Oxford led by two and the Kassam seemed to shake from the thunder of the fans.
stand was in raptures, Hoban had scored the 19th goal of his season, and it was all over bar the shouting.
Kyle didn’t even feel the need to use any more of his substitutions. The players were running on adrenalin now and they were more than good enough to hold Luton for the remaining minutes. The singing started, and right on cue, Tim Robinson’s whistle sent Oxford United to Wembley.
Oxford United: Ashdown: Potts, Dunkley (Mullins 67), Wright (captain), Skarz, Ssewankambo, Whing, MacDonald, Maddison, Hylton, Hoban. Unused subs: Clarke, Bevans, Grimshaw, Long, Ashby, Hoskins.
Oxford United 2 (3) (Whing pen 55, Hoban 78)
Luton Town 0 (1)
A – 12,573, The Kassam Stadium, Oxford
Man of the Match: Pelly Ruddock, Luton (MR 7.4)
GUMP: Andy Whing
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