United's proud unbeaten away record, the longest in the Football League, finally fell at Newport County tonight. Leading through another fine goal from James Constable, United were beaten by a deflected Rene Howe effort and second-half goals from Oxford old boys Ryan Burge and Chris Zebroski. Alfie Potter's late second almost rescued a point but in the end Newport held firm to claim a memorable scalp.
On a heavy pitch there was an extra bit of mopping up in the first few minutes as the home side came out of the traps fast. Credit to them, they kept that pace up for the entire 90 minutes. Former United midfielder Adam Chapman was at the centre of most good things, playing that familiar ‘quarterback’ role and spraying the ball around Rodney Park. Zebroski had the first chance of the game with an eighth-minute effort which Ryan Clarke was swiftly out to block.
United had absorbed the pressure and sat back, then on 13 minutes stormed into the lead. The ever-reliable Tom Newey pinged a fine ball down the left where the irrepressible Kitson took the ball down and spotted the run of Constable. He controlled it, went five yards forward, then smashed a wonderful left-footed effort past keeper Elliott Parish whose first touch of the ball was to pick it out of the net. 105 and closing.
Constable’s goal record will always dominate headlines but at the other end Clarke made a save from Yakubu that was just as vital, while the excellent Mullins headed a cross away on 22 that was destined for the head of Zebroski for a tap-in. Such moments and such commitment have been vital all season.
At the other end Danny Rose saw a 31st-minute free kick comfortably saved by Parish but generally it had been about weathering the storm and holding on to that hard-earned lead for the men in the purple Isinglass shirts.
They very nearly made it to the break but 30 seconds into injury time it was 1-1. Minshull took aim on the edge of the box as he was closed down. His shot hit Rene Howe. Clarke might have saved that, even with the deflection, but the ball seemed to bounce off of a divot in the heavily sanded six-yard box and spin into the bottom left-hand corner to make it honours even at the interval.
Having been pushed back in the first half, Mickey Lewis once again made a brave decision to change the shape at the break to try to force the game. Rose was replaced, Ruffels (the one change to the starting line-up in place of David Connolly) moved into the middle and Potter came on to play just behind a front three of Smalley, Kitson and Constable.
United were still defending strongly but now had a different option up front. Kitson hobbled off on 57 to allow Ryan Williams to go to the right and Constable play through the middle. The extra pace opened the game up and pushed Newport’s full backs further back, although Chapman fired shots either side of the goal with Clarke relieved that they missed the target.
It was another ex-Oxford man who gave the Exiles the lead though. Howe cleverly shielded the ball and invited a challenge from Ruffels on the left side of United's box. Ref Oli Langford awarded a free kick and Burge swirled a left-footed effort over everyone and into the far side of the net to make it 2-1 on 70 minutes.
United were not going to lose that record without giving it everything and when David Connolly replaced Bevans with 15 minutes to go United had five forwards in a 3-2-1-4 shape to try to find a way back into the game. It was a gamble, with just Hunt, Mullins and Newey left to protect Clarke, but why not?
For a spell they piled on pressure but with nine minutes to go a long ball brought their demise. Pumped down the right channel, Zebroski all but gave up the chase as Mullins and Clarke converged. To both their horrors Mullins poked it back to where he believed Clarke was, only to find him standing next to him. Like two batsmen stranded at the same end there was nothing they could do as Zebroski trotted on to tap the ball into the unguarded net.
United looked beaten, but you should know better than that. With three minutes to go Williams skipped forward, Constable shot and Potter was on the spot to convert from close range and set up a nail-biting finale.
Newport retreated and gave ground, United piled forward. Five minutes of added time brought a purple siege but no breakthrough.
Scenes of great celebration for the home fans, while United fans will look back on a magnificent run that ended in a brave effort tonight. 14 games to go, still all to play for. See you at Morecambe on Saturday.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Darrell Fisher, stats by OPTA
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