Ten-man Oxford United were beaten 2-1 at Bristol Rovers this afternoon. Trailing to a Jermaine Easter goal, United got back on level terms through Kane Hemmings' first goal for the club before the break. However, Sam Long
's dismissal and a cool finish by former U's striker Matty Taylor soon afterwards handed the Gas all three points and United a first away defeat in 2016.
Playing their first home league game back in League One, Rovers flew out of the blocks and could have scored two in the first two minutes. Simon Eastwood
saved Mark McChrystal’s header after 75 seconds and Rory Gaffney failed to tap home a simple-looking finish from the resulting corner. Gaffney dragged another decent chance wide on five minutes and United barely had time to draw breath, throwing themselves in front of further efforts and having to defend stoutly and concentrate hard in the first 20 minutes.
At the other end, Hemmings continually stretched the game by playing on the shoulder of the last defender and almost found the opener on 17 as he flicked an Alex MacDonald
effort towards goal as United grew into the game.
However on 25 they were behind. The entire ground were already on their feet and applauding 24-year-old fan Joe Allington, who passed away suddenly last week. As the applause rang out, Easter latched on to the ball in the right channel and powered past Aaron Martin
. Once clear, Easter steadied himself then drilled an unstoppable effort across Eastwood and into the far corner to make it 1-0 and give the young Rovers fan a perfect tribute.
United have developed a great habit of seeing a goal conceded as a setback rather than a catastrophe and almost hit back immediately when a flowing move, started by Chris Maguire
, ended with Hemmings heading back at the far post and the flying Sercombe nodding the bouncing ball just wide as home keeper Steve Mildenhall hesitated.
They were pressing and looking increasingly dangerous and on 43 were on level terms, with the first of what will be many goals for the former Dundee hitman. Strike-partner Ryan Taylor
did exceptionally well to head down a Curtis Nelson
ball forward but Hemmings had everything to do as he took the ball in his stride 25 yards out. Rovers back-pedalled and gave him space, Hemmings took careful aim and the rifled the ball unerringly into the bottom left corner of the net with Mildenhall helpless. Top finish from a natural finisher.
The second half was evenly contested, MacDonald clipping an early effort just wide and Tom Lockyer powering a header wide at the other end on 53. Maguire, outstanding once again, had a snapshot saved by Mildenhall on 55 after yet more good approach play from Taylor, and Hemmings had another shot saved, but sub Ellis Harrison came as close as anyone to finding another goal with a flashing drive that was inches wide of Eastwood's left-hand post.
With a quarter of the game left, the Yellows' task was made harder as Long, already on a (very harsh) booking, raised a boot and was shown a second yellow by ref Charles Breakspear. Head Coach Michael Appleton had argued long and hard in making his point to the ref as the teams went off at half time that the booking had seemed to come after Long won the ball, but the decision was to turn the game. It meant a reshuffle and an unfamiliar right-back role for Sercombe, who lost his bearings when trying to head away a deep cross soon afterwards, His header went back across goal rather than out for a corner and with a sickening inevitability it went straight to Taylor, who showed a little bit of composure before smashing the ball past the exposed Eastwood, who had no chance.
The rock-like Nelson blocked another effort from Taylor on 74 as he let fly from the edge of the box and some trickery from sub Dan Crowley
threatened to bring the ten mean another way back into the game but everywhere they went there was a covering home defender determined to deny them a sight of Mildenhall's goal. In the end it took another brilliant save from Eastwood to stop another ex-Oxford man, Cristian Montano, from making it 3- 1 with five minutes left.
There was one final, glorious chance for sub Tyler Roberts, who fired over from eight yards in injury time with the goal at his mercy, but United were beaten. Typically, United will make no excuses. They will regroup, move on and be ready for the trip to Fleetwood on Wednesday night.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures Darrell Fisher, stats by OPTA