Liverpool loanee Ben Woodburn and ex-Red Cameron Brannagan both scored decisive spot-kicks as Karl Robinson’s Oxford United reached the League One playoff final.
Woodburn’s return from long-term foot injuries has coincided nicely with Oxford’s push to reach the Championship, having finished fourth in League One while he was sidelined.
The 20-year-old started in his comeback game against Portsmouth on Friday, in a first-leg clash that ended 1-1, but was reduced to a substitutes’ role just three days later in the second leg.
With Robinson, formerly a youth coach at Liverpool, cautious not to overload his No. 10, he instead brought him off the bench at a crucial moment as penalties approached.
Marcus Harness had put Portsmouth 1-0 up, and 2-1 ahead on aggregate, in the 38th minute, only for his team-mate, Ellis Harrison to level with an own goal before the end of the first half.
A tense second half ensued, with no side able to score over the next 45 minutes and extra time, which set up a shootout.
Robinson sent Woodburn on in the 120th minute, trusting the Liverpool youngster’s technique to get Oxford over the line as they gambled their entire season on a lottery.
He took the first penalty for the U’s, cancelling out John Marquis’ conversion for Portsmouth, with Simon Eastwood denying Cameron McGeehan to allow Cameron Brannagan to step up and score the winner.
It sets up a final against Wycombe Wanderers on July 13 at Wembley, with Robinson emphatic as his side fought against the odds to edge closer to the Championship.
“I’m just full of admiration for the players. We’re in the final, what more can you say?” he said after the game.
“When you think that I’ve had to sell my two best players in January and we came into this game with three or four struggling with injuries, it’s incredible.”
The final could be Woodburn’s last game for Oxford, with his loan deal due to the expire at the end of the season, though it is likely a second spell at the Kassam Stadium could be agreed if promotion is secured.
If so, it would provide him with the perfect platform to revive a career dogged by injuries and questionable decisions from coaches.
For Liverpool fans, the sight of a 24-year-old Brannagan shining in a senior role at Oxford should be heartening, with the early promise of his time under Jurgen Klopp fading only for him now to find his feet with the U’s.
This season he has made 36 appearances, scoring seven goals and laying on six assists, even captaining the side in their League Cup first round victory over Peterborough in August.