DEFEAT in the FA Youth Cup to Northampton has been marked as Swindon Town Under 18s’ turning point this season by academy manager Alan McLoughlin, who praised the work ethic and drive of the youth team and staff.

Town’s youngsters face Oxford United in Abingdon on Saturday (11am), knowing victory will secure them the Merit League title providing Southend United fail to beat Portsmouth by a minimum of five goals.

A visible turnaround in results – and performance levels – since the youth management held a frank meeting following their Youth Cup exit has pleased McLoughlin.

And the 52-year-old admits winning the league title would put the cherry on top of what has been a productive campaign.

“When they got knocked out of the FA Youth Cup at Northampton (in November), I wasn’t too pleased with the performance – or even what had happened up until that point,” said McLoughlin.

“Results and performances have become more consistent since, and that’s all credit to David (Farrell, under 18s manager) and the players for taking onboard what we observed.

“We don’t expect the lads to win every game, but we expect them to have a good work ethic.

“Oxford are a very good team – I don’t know what has happened recently as they’ve had a few negative results.

“They will do everything they can to try and stop us from winning the league.

“This is probably the first time the team has a bit of pressure on them to go out and perform. If it’s a positive result, then everything is in our hands.”

First team manager Richie Wellens said four professional contracts had been offered to the group of second-year scholars, meaning several missed out on extending their stay at the club.

Despite finding this news out several weeks ago, players have continued to apply themselves well – which has resulted in a shot at winning the Merit League title.

McLoughlin praised the attitude and approach of those youngsters who will not be a part of Town’s first-team set-up next season, adding that ‘difficult’ category three facilities make coaching younger players that little bit tougher.

He added: “The players’ level of commitment and attitude to training has been nothing short of fantastic.

“What people should understand is that we are a category three academy – we run with difficult facilities.

“We have to travel an hour and 15 minutes everyday just to train, and there are restrictions around us.

“Some of these boys have been here for eight years, and we’ve been respectful to those boys too – we haven’t let anyone know which players have been offered deals.

“I didn’t want those decisions to detract from the effort they have put in when we still have a job to do.

“Richie (Wellens) has been very good, we’ll hopefully have all the players available to take on Oxford – which is the right way to do it.”