Oxford United started 2017 in style with an excellent 1-0 win away at Gillingham this afternoon. Chey Dunkley
smashed home the only goal in the second half of a hard-fought 90 minutes as the Gills ended the game with ten men.
The new year started in bright sunshine and United matched that with a bright start of their own. Rob Hall
pinged the first effort of the match over the bar after ten minutes before Chris Maguire
was uncharacteristically wasteful with a glorious opening a minute later, rounding the keeper but then firing into the side netting with Ryan Taylor
begging for the ball inside him.
Taylor, the one change to the side when replacing Kane Hemmings
up front, linked things together well and allowed United to build around him and dominate the first half hour; Maguire missed his kick from an Alex MacDonald
free kick on 14, Taylor couldn’t convert when centre halves Dunkley and Curtis Nelson
came up to cause chaos at a corner on 17.
Gillingham are a powerful attacking unit and Frank Nouble and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas were a handful for Nelson and Dunkley, but other than a comfortable catch from a Nouble drive, Simon Eastwood
hadn’t had a save to make in the first half as the two sides began to cancel each other out after that opening 20 minutes or so.
United started the second half brightly too but were lacking a cutting edge despite getting themselves into countless promising positions in the first 15 minutes. In the end it took a set piece to provide a breakthrough. MacDonald and Maguire worked a short corner, Maguire slammed in a low ball from the left that was too good for the home defence and Dunkley smashed it joyfully home from six yards out to make it 1-0 in front of the magnificent 1,200 away fans, who had sung their hearts out all afternoon.
Gillingham still hadn't really tested Eastwood at that stage and were handicapped on 76 when Deji Oshilaja baulked Taylor as he turned and was shown a second yellow to leave his side down to ten men (and already struggling through suspension after two defenders were sent off in their previous game).
The Yellows should have killed it off after 79 minutes when sub Tyler Roberts
ghosted in but couldn't sidefoot past home keeper Stuart Nelson from eight yards out. Sub Rory Donnelly might have made them pay with two efforts that went overt the bar, the first an ambitious free kick, the second an acrobatic overhead kick, but skipper Lundstram had a much better chance to end the scoring at the other end, only to fire over after a superb backheel from Roberts had left him with the entire goal to aim at.
It didn't matter too much. The U's had earned their three points, been totally committed and created the clearer chances.
2016 saw plenty of celebrations with the fans at the final whistle, 2017 started in very familiar fashion...
Report by Chris Williams, images by Darrell Fisher, stats by OPTA
See extended Highlights and reaction in Yellow Player HD