Oxford United had to settle for a point at Port Vale today after letting a 2-0 half-time lead slip in a 'game of two halves'. Early strikes from Chey Dunkley
and Dan Crowley
had put the U's firmly in control at the break but a stirring second-half comeback from the Valiants led to goals from Ricardo Cicilia and Ryan Taylor
, from the penalty spot, to leave it honours even after an action-packed 90 minutes.
As promised, Michael Appleton made changes after losing to bottom club Coventry in midweek. In came Crowley for a full league debut, Curtis Nelson
and Joe Skarz
to the defence after injury and Liam Sercombe
and Marvin Johnson out wide in midfield.
Appleton had spoken about the need for a faster start from his team, and got precisely that. Crowley and the immaculate Chris Maguire
offered a skilful, inventive front two and Maguire had the first effort of the day when he sent a curling shot just wide after six minutes. United had delivered on their promise to start well and deserved their lead when it came in the 11th minute. Maguire was the provider with an inviting free kick and Dunkley was too strong for defender Calvin Macintosch, powering his header past the helpless Jak Alnwick from ten yards out. It was the first time United had scored in the first 15 minutes of a match this season and gave them the best possible platform.
On 20 minutes they were 2-0 up with a superb team goal. Crowley picked the ball up and drove forward at the retreating Vale defence. He played it to the feet of Maguire who slipped it to Johnson. The winger would have been entitled to shoot as he bore down on the keeper but instead cut it back to allow Crowley to side-foot home for the second game in a row.
Two-nil up with well over an hour to play, the U’s had been impish and bright, zipping the ball around and finding space all over the park. Instead of shutting up shop they continued to go forward in search of the third goal and it took a flying save from Alnwick to palm away another Maguire free kick on the half hour.
At the other end, the defensive qualities of Nelson, Skarz, Dunkley and Phil Edwards
now came to the fore as they looked to keep their advantage at least until the break, helped by the tireless John Lundstram
just in front of them, screening the defence, using the ball intelligently and allowing Joe Rothwell
to push on and give the Vale defence something else to worry about whenever he carried the ball forward at pace.
The very last action of the half should have led to a third goal when the pace of the dangerous Johnson once again undid Vale and led to a deep cross from Crowley that Sercombe couldn’t quite steer on target as he arrived at the back post at the end of a typical 50-yard run.
The contrast between the two sets of fans could not have been greater at the interval and the boos from the home fans would have been multiplied many times over had Crowley’s touch not been just too heavy when he ran clear two minutes into the second half, allowing Alnwick to gather.
Those misses either side of the break would have sealed the points but instead Vale managed to claw themselves back into the game with two quick goals. First a free kick from the right was nodded back and Cicilia caught a half volley sweetly to make it 1-1. Then the big striker backed into Nelson and in the eyes of ref Ben Toner was fouled, allowing Ryan Taylor
to smash home a penalty on his debut and make the scoreline 2-2.
Nothing in the first half had hinted at that Vale revival and it would have been complete had Eastwood not made great save to his left to stop Taylor's free kick finding the net.
United continued to create chances at the other end. Maguire and Sercombe both found the side netting, sub Tyler Roberts
couldn't beat Alnwick with a low shot from 12 yards out and after the initial shock of being pegged back the U's had started to show some of the same swagger that had made them so dominant for 45 minutes. Lundstram blasted over from the edge of the box on 82, Sercombe couldn't find a finish as he got forward in the last minute, Rothwell volleyed wide at the other post in injury time, and the approach play continued to be crisp and easy on the eye, but the winning touch was to prove elusive. There was even time for some comedy in injury time with Eastwood on the right wing and four defenders on the United line to cover for him
A point on the board away from home but a missed opportunity when the game was there for the taking.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Darrell Fisher and Steve Daniels, stats by OPTA