United showed terrific heart to come back and claim a point at Fleetwood this afternoon. Trailing to a Steve Schumacher goal early in the game, United threw everything at a stubborn home defence that was finally breached in the 89th minute by Dave Kitson's dramatic header. United stay top and will also take great encouragement from a powerful second half which keeps their unbeaten away record intact.
With an unchanged side, United started strongly, closing down opponents and playing with real tempo, although Ryan Williams found his way into the book for a sixth-minute lunge at Charles Taylor. It was mistimed rather than malicious but set the tone for a physical game where both sides fought for every ball.
The decisive moment came in the 12th minute, when Johnny Mullins brought down the dangerous Nathan Tyson to the right of the Oxford penalty area. It was a tough angle but Schumacher is a fine set-piece taker and struck the ball beautifully to flash it over the defence and the stranded Ryan Clarke to arrow into the far right corner.
The goal put the home side top rather than United but the purple Isinglass shirted U's are resilient and came back strongly with a dangerous free kick from David Hunt only a yard away from the head of Johnny Mullins and an eye-catching run from left-winger Josh Ruffels blocked on the edge of the area as he prepared to shoot. Ruffels then skinned his full back once more in the 25th minute and delivered an excellent cross to the far post, where Williams was denied by keeper Scott Davies as he looked to head home.
Having had the lion's share of possession after the goal, United were given a let off on 31 minutes as Schumacher drove over from 12 yards with only Clarke to beat. Other than that, the watchful back line of Hunt, Raynes, Mullins and Newey had protected Clarke's goal with another very solid display and enabled their side to go in at the break still very much in the game.
The second period was all United as they piled the pressure on the home defence. The sides exchanged shots in the first five minutes, Clarke making a decent save at one end and Hall firing wide at the other before three great chances in five seconds came United's way. Constable's fierce drive was blocked by a defender's body, Williams smashed the rebound at goal and was again denied and then Hunt lashed the second rebound over the top and into the magnificent away fans as they tried to draw their side towards them.
Three minutes later and Hall saw a right-footed shot blocked once more but was on to the rebound and powering in a low left-footed effort which whistled a yard the wrong side of the right-hand post with the keeper sprawling. It was then Newey's turn to go close with a jink and a shot from 18 yards to send the ball narrowly wide once more.
Fleetwood were hanging on but United just could not find a way to hit the net against the Cod Army. They thought they had done it on 73 minutes when Kitson rose majestically to power in a header from eight yards out. Somehow keeper Davies twisted to push the ball away and keep his side in front.
Close shaves, brave blocks and good saves to frustrate The U's and with 11 minutes left a missed penalty would have knocked the stuffing out of most other sides. Kitson stuck out a leg to tap the ball up. It struck an arm and Kitson was fouled at the same moment, presenting Danny Rose with a penalty against his former club. His spot kick was well struck but Davies flew to his left to keep the ball out.
Downhearted? Never. Still United poured forward. Mullins's goalbound effort flew to safety off a Fleet-footed defender. First to the ball and ferociously committed United had played their hearts out and deserved something for their efforts and with two minutes to go got their reward. Hunt once again floated in a magnificent ball and Kitson, in the midst of a scrum of defenders, rose highest to power a perfectly directed header into the bottom left corner of the net. A great finish and a point earned the hard way by a side that just refuses to lie down.
Heart, character and hunger: another great away day from Chris Wilder's team of fighters.
Report by Chris Williams, Pictures by Darrell Fisher, Stats by OPTA
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