Oxford United were forced to settle for a point at home to Stevenage this afternoon. After being reduced to ten men after quarter of an hour when John Lundstram
was dismissed, United stormed back to take the lead through Liam Sercombe
but were then pegged back by a Byron Harrison equaliser to ease the visitor's problems at the wrong end of the table.
There were changes to the line-up, some enforced and some optional. With Jonjoe Kenny away on international duty, Johnny Mullins
switched to right back, allowing skipper Jake Wright
to come back into central defence. Mullins had Danny Hylton
in front of him on the right flank in place of Callum O’Dowda, while Jordan Bowery
came back into the front line to partner Kemar Roofe
Stevenage, fresh from five defeats in a row, opened brightly enough but the game was to hinge on key decisions. The biggest came after 15 minutes when Lundstram’s afternoon ended early. It was a flying challenge on Michael Tonge that led to the dismissal, although Lundstram did seem to take the ball cleanly. Unfortunately for him, ref Paul Tierney was in unforgiving mood and despite United’s protests brandished a red card that means that Lundstram will miss next week’s JPT Final at Wembley.
United stuck to their guns, bringing Alex MacDonald
into a more central position and continuing to attack despite the man disadvantage but the first 45 minutes had failed to produce a single shot on target. However, injury time was another matter when a MacDonald corner was headed goalwards by Dunkley and ref Tierney found himself at the centre of controversy again. Hylton was hauled to the ground by keeper Jamie Jones as the striker backed in to him and Mr Tierney pointed straight to the spot. If the U’s have an Achilles heel this season it is penalties and Sercombe’s spot kick was saved by Jones, going to his right.
Now, bear with me a little bit here. With their side down to ten men and having missed a penalty the home fans might well have decided it wasn’t to be their day. Not the Yellow Army. Sensing that their side needed them most, the fans rose to their feet and created a wall of noise, not just the East Stand but the North and South as well. ‘Appleton’s Yellow Army’ they chanted and stomped and their side responded. Kemar Roofe
twisted and ran down the left wing then clipped a ball into the box. Sercombe, who had run like a man possessed all afternoon, had timed this one to perfection and took Roofe’s cross in his stride then smashed it past Jones to give his side a priceless lead. A great moment in a memorable season and every single player ran to the fans to celebrate together.
Surely they would claim another memorable win? Stevenage had been penned back and the extra man had almost been forgotten. Unfortunately, on 68 minutes they were back in the game with a well-worked goal to draw level once more. Luer did well with a run into the penalty area and a cut back for the ever-dangerous Harrison, who side-footed home beyond the helpless Buchel from six yards out.
That was harsh on the U's who had been on top but Stevenage came more into the game after the equaliser and both sides seemed determined to try and claim all three points rather than settle for a draw. Four minutes of injury time still couldn't produce a winner despite late pressure from the U's and a string of crosses missing their men by inches.
Under the circumstances a draw for the ten men is not a disaster by any means, but in an even-sided game who knows what might have happened? No time to brood over it, United, who stay second, are back in action at Cambridge on Easter Monday. See you there.
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Report by Chris Williams, pictures Steve Daniels and Darrell Fisher