Oxford United's FA Cup adventure ended but only after a magnificent fightback at the Kassam Stadium this evening. First-half goals from Sean Longstaff and Joelinton looked to have sent Steve Bruce's side through to the last 16, but United refused to give up and Liam Kelly fired home a late free kick before Nathan Holland volleyed United level in injury time to force extra time. With penalties looming, United were then finally beaten when sub Allan Saint-Maximin scored a screamer to break their hearts.
The U's were solid and determined all evening and never fully out of the game at any stage but surely 2-0 down to a side from two divisions above was too much to recover from? Think again.
Team-wise, there was a return for Elliott Moore and Jamie Mackie after the league win over Blackpool on Saturday. Attitude-wise it was as at St James’ Park, with everyone aware of their roles, their distances from teammates and the need to be clever about when to commit men forward. Alex Gorrin, outstanding again, as in the first game, set the tone with three thunderous early challenges but in that game Newcastle didn’t turn early possession into a goal and this time they did.
In truth, United engineered their own downfall for the opener with a couple of looping headers rather than a thumping clearance, and when the ball ran to Sean Longstaff on the edge of the area he showed no mercy with a peach of a strike beyond the reach of Simon Eastwood to give the visitors the lead.
Joelinton should have doubled that lead but volleyed wide with the goal at his mercy, but on 29 minutes the Brazilian made amends with a goal full of power and pace.
It came from United’s free kick which was thrown into the Newcastle area but belted clear, well over half way and gave Joelinton a vital yard head start on Rob Dickie. The defender must have considered bringing him down and risking a red but Joelinton raced clear and then finished with a neat effort past the sprawling Eastwood. There was a foul on Browne in the build up but alas no VAR this time.
United needed a swift reply and nearly got it when Jamie Mackie swivelled and let fly, but keeper Karl Darlow somehow managed to save that and when Sam Long drilled the ball at goal moments later Jamaal Lascelles was in the right place to clear the ball from off the line.
Holland then volleyed a superb Sykes cross against the helpless Mackie rather than into the net. Three good chances not taken while the top-flight side had taken both of theirs: surely game over after 45 minutes?
Somehow, United regrouped and stayed in the game but hadn't really looked like getting their reward until sub Kelly sparked wild scenes and the greatest comeback United have ever managed at the Kassam Stadium.
They had created half chances; Ruffels and sub Matty Taylor almost found a way through the well-drilled visiting defence and then with six minutes left Kelly raised the roof with a magnificent free kick after fellow sub Dan Agyei had been felled 20 yards from goal.
Cue drama, tension and a proper FA Cup atmosphere as the fans rallied behind their side. Matty Longstaff steered a golden chance wide before Ruffels fired a good chance over the bar at the other end. United fell to their knees in frustration and must have thought their chance was gone...
No chance. Deep into injury time and with Eastwood up for a free kick, Holland showed great technique to volley a dropping ball through a packed six-yard box and somehow, improbably, forced the game into an extra 30 minutes.
The excellent Agyei almost made it 3-2 but couldn't get the ball out of his feet, Sykes was scythed down to produce another free kick which Kelly bent just wide but the ever-reliable Eastwood needed to make two good saves before everyone drew breath at half time in extra time.
Matty Longstaff had chances without making Eastwood work, Saint-Maximin did make the keeper save but it wasn't as if United were being overrun and slowly the realisation began to grow that penalties were on their way.
Hoowever, with tired legs and screaming lungs, United were finding the game stretched and with five minutes left, Saint-Maximin finally ended the game with a superb goal as he sprinted down the left, cut inside and finally found a way to get the ball past Eastwood.
A magnificent night and a game which rolled back the years to remind fans of the great Jim Smith side who beat Newcastle back in the 1980s amid similar drama. Huge credit to every one of the players who refused to take a step backwards and waved away any sense of an inevitable defeat. Wonderful game. Wonderful competition.
No shame in defeat at this stage and a heroic effort from all involved, but United had possibly missed their opportunity in the first game when they had chances to end it inside 90 minutes. Newcastle move on to play West Brom away in the last 16 and we wish them well after two keenly contested games.
For Oxford, one dream is packed away for another season.
On with the serious stuff. See you at Peterborough on Saturday.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures Steve Daniels, Shutterstock and Tom Melvin