VERDICT: Oxford United 0 Fleetwood Town 2

Forget the opening day. This was the start of the new Joey Barton era.

Sunday, 12th August 2018, 10:41 pm
Updated Monday, 13th August 2018, 11:41 am
Paddy Madden slides the ball home from the spot

Grit, spark, flair, steel and a combative streak, it was all there.

Far from the finished article and defensive cracks need to be ironed out, but this was the start we expected after that pre-season.

The whole performance was summed up by the showing of Kyle Dempsey. Quiet and not allowed room against AFC Wimbledon, the new-look attacking Dempsey was unleashed at Oxford.

He started the move for the first goal, picking up the loose ball, then after some slick passing he was away. He bulldozed his way past a host of yellow shirts. Barton had called for more controlled aggression and here it was summed up in one player as Dempsey carved through Oxford.

Yes, the replays might suggest that Ched Evans fouled Tony McMahon in the build- up but he strolled in to gobble up the chance put on a plate by Dempsey.

Dempsey should have made it two, another slick counter seeing Ash Hunter mark his 150th appearance by sliding in Dempsey to run through on goal.

But Dempsey’s scuffed effort that rolled past the left stick to show this is still work in progress.

While Kyle was the spark of creativity that freedom owed a lot to Jason Holt and Dean Marney.

Both experienced midfielders were thrown in to make their first starts and their steel added something I have not seen in a long time in a Fleetwood Town side – they were comfortable in possession.

They want to be on the ball in their own half and in the opposition half. They want to own that ball and put their stamp on it.

Holt missed the first game due to suspension and showed just why Barton lured his old team- mate to Town.

Barton spoke about the need to have leadership in the middle of the park and those two certainly brought that in abundance but also a calmness to the engine room.

The homegrown rule has seen controversy as first Ash Eastham and now Cian Bolger missed out due to the need to include an academy player.

That paid dividends for Nathan Sheron. The 20-year-old, was the stand-out development star of pre-season and Barton stuck to his word of giving kids a chance as Sheron became the first academy player to feature in the league for Fleetwood.

Sheron etched his name in the history books and he swam after being thrown in at the deep end. Bolger, though, was terribly unlucky not to be involved.

He was sacrificed for the returning Eastham,who showed why he deserved that recall. A clean sheet was his just reward but perhaps there is a case to reunite Bolger and Eastham in the middle.

Morgan is easing his way back after a season on the sidelines. It was just his second start since the summer of 2017 and new skipper is certainly rusty.

His mistake allowed Sam Smith to sprint clear but Cairns’ leg thwarted the hosts.

It could have been a different story but the clean sheet will boost the confidence in the squad, though Town need to iron out those creases.

Wimbledon should have scored more than one and Oxford should have scored.

And we cannot ignore the other defensive issue – the left-back role.

Last week it was centre-half Tommy Spurr and this week right-back Lewie Coyle who played there.

Coyle did OK but struggled against Ricky Holmes, who has been a thorn in Town’s side in seasons past, though after a nervous opening barely any chances came through that channel.

Gethin Jones, the man elevated to right-back, took his chance and has created serious competition for that spot.

But with one more loan available, and Joe Maguire and Eddie Clarke deemed too inexperienced to make that leap to first-team left-back just yet, it is time for Barton to dip into the market.

One of those youngsters may well get a chance in the EFL Cup tomorrow, and could then get the nod for Saturday by impressing.

Amari’i Bell’s departure still casting a shadow on Barton’s new reign but other than that this a squad to be excited about.

Just look at the calibre of players not involved. Conor McAleny, a man I think will be Town’s first 20-goal man since Jamie Vardy, was an unused substitute, with Bolger and Harrison Biggins, last term’s stand-out development squad star, also not involved.

Town have a squad of strength, quality and experience.

They are creating competition for places, and we saw what that can do for the front line on Saturday.

Paddy Madden and Wes Burns refused to sulk at being omitted and instead decided to give Barton a selection headache.

Both impressed off the bench, Hunter again unselfish as he chipped the ball up for Burns to sprint in and win a penalty.

Madden coolly slid the ball home in the 89th minute.

Town looked the team destined to get the next goal after introducing the fresh legs.

Barton’s big test will be to keep the competition healthy and thriving as the season rolls on.

Despite the grey skies at the Kassam, the light that Barton has brought to Town is shining.

It’s a work in progress but those 89 Cod Army fans were certainly singing in the rain at the final whistle as boos sounded round Oxford.