Oxford United 5
Hall 16, 67, Constable 71, 90, Leven 77
Walton pen 55
by RICK COWDERY
HARDER lessons have been dished out in Oxford than the one Argyle found themselves on the end of at the Kassam Stadium but, as manager Carl Fletcher has pointed out, Pilgrims everywhere are on a huge learning curve nowadays.
With a team whose average age was less than those in the city who will be graduating next summer, it was, in more than one sense, boys against men: no faulting the effort, commitment and attitude of the Fletchlings, though.
Argyle bounced back from conceding an early goal to Robbie Hall to briefly level through Simon Walton's third successful penalty in four game ten minutes after half-time but were on terms for only 12 minutes before Hall netted his second.
Two late goals from James Constable and another from Peter Leven did little for the Pilgrims' goal-difference or, one imagines, their confidence. Another facet of Fletcher's young management life will be tested before it is all aboard for Cheltenham.
Fletcher had been obliged to make two changes to his starting line-up from the team that had begun Saturday's 1-0 home defeat by Swindon, with Conor Hourihane suspended and Warren Feeney injured.
He went further than that, demoting French midfielder Ladjie Soukouna to the substitutes' bench and called up three teenagers: homegrown 18-year-olds Jared Sims and Luke Young, and on-loan Ipswich Town player Jamie Griffiths, 19.
For Sims, who had turned 18 only nine days previously, it was a Football League debut, having previously appeared only in August's Carling Cup tie against Millwall; Young was making only his third first-team start and seasonal first-team appearance.
With 16-year-old Matt Lecointe leading the attack and defender Robbie Williams the senior professional at the less than ripe old age of (just) 27, the average age of the Pilgrims' starting 11 was less than 21. Even factoring in the senior pro management team of Fletcher and Romain Larrieu, the average age of the entire 16 on duty was comfortably less than 23.
Oxford, who had lost 1-0 to nine-man Gillingham at the weekend, made one change to their team, forward Constable being promoted from the bench and swapping places with Deane Smalley.
Constable was soon in the picture, bringing a save out of Jake Cole and then picking up the loose for a second shot that was deflected for the first of two corners that produced some familiar jitters in the Pilgrims' penalty area.
The storm weathered, the kids did alright, although it was the old stager Williams who produced Argyle's biggest threat, letting one rip from distance that goalkeeper Ryan Clarke deflected wide.
Another deflection, from a Hall shot at the other end, led to Oxford's opener. Again, Argyle failed to clear their lines from the corner, and although Alfie Potter's close-range header was superbly parried by Cole, acting on instinct alone, Hall snaffled up the rebound with aplomb.
Any immediate fears for the Greens' callow team were dispelled by some intentful attacking which saw Atkinson tee up Sims for a shot that was well saved by Clarke, and Michael Duberry clearing Atkinson's subsequent lob over the Oxford goalkeeper from the goal-line.
Argyle stuck to their task well, but came unstuck on the odd occasion and Oxford were quick to capitalise when the Pilgrims lost their by and large admirable discipline, most notably when Liam Davis whistled a shot across Cole's goal after cutting in off the left wing.
Cole kept the Pilgrims in the game shortly before the interval, when he reacted well to keep out Simon Heslop's long-range shot with his legs after being wrong-footed by a deflection.
The Argyle goalkeeper was in action again before the half-time whistle as Alfie Potter joined in with the home side's shoot-on-sight ethic with yet another shot from distance that Cole went full stretch to turn aside.
The start of the second half saw a similar scenario, with Cole alert enough to close down the free-running Hall before he fired off another low shot.
The floundering Pilgrims were then handed a lifeline which they eagerly grasped.
Duberry tarnished his cult status at the Kassam by needlessly jumping into Sims and flattening the youngster, who must be half his size, never mind his age, to concede a penalty.
Walton has been deadly from 12 yards this season, cunning enough to vary his method and equally effective with each type of strike. His star now is well and truly in the ascendency: captain of the Pilgrims and leading scorer.
Oxford responded as you would have expected and Hall and Cole resumed their private battle, with the Argyle 'keeper coming out on top again after a rampaging break out of defence by the home side.
The Pilgrims' parity did not last long, as Oxford stretched them from flank to flank, flirting with a second until Damian Batt set up Hall for a quite exquisite finish.
Two swiftly became three as Argyle were caught out by another break with Potter and Constable both getting in behind the back four before the latter netted despite the best efforts of the overworked Cole.
Leven's audacious lob kind of summed up the evening, and was unfair on Cole, who had done more than anything to stem the yellow tide.
However, the Argyle goalkeeper had some measure of revenge by thwarting Potter in a one-on-one situation that appeared to massively favour the Oxford man.
Oxford eased off until injury-time, when Constable completed a miserable evening for the Pilgrims.
Oxford United (4-4-2): 1 Ryan Clarke; 2 Damien Batt, 5 Michael Duberry (16 Andrew Whing 82), 6 Jake Wright (capt), 26 Liam Davis; 15 Alfie Potter, 8 Simon Heslop, 4 Paul McLaren (18 Josh Payne 82), 20 Peter Leven; 9 James Constable, 30 Robbie Hall (33 Danny Philliskirk 87). Substitutes (not used): 10 Deane Smalley, 14 Asa Hall.
Booked: Davis 52, Duberry 54.
Argyle (4-4-2): 23 Jake Cole; 2 Durrell Berry, 6 Curtis Nelson, 19 Ben Gibson, 3 Robbie Williams; 21 Will Atkinson (14 Onismor Bhasera 69), 15 Luke Young, 8 Simon Walton (capt), 22 Jamie Griffiths (24 Isaac Vassell 82); 17 Jared Sims (13 Ladjie Soukouna 78), 27 Matt Lecointe. Substitutes (not used): 1 Romain Larrieu, 4 Carl Fletcher.
Booked: Walton 20, Atkinson 23, Soukouna 85.
Attendance:7.802 (722 away).