Oxford United started 2015 with a defeat as Cheltenham Town came from behind to win 2-1 at the Kassam Stadium this afternoon. Leading through Wes Burns' first goal for the club, United were beaten when Liverpool loanees Jack Dunn and Kevin Stewart notched debut goals to win it for the Robins.
As with the previous meeting at Whaddon Road this season, it was Robins' keeper Trevor Carson who caught the eye at first, this time making a fine save on three minutes to tip a Roberts shot away from danger after a flowing United move.
Roberts, Hylton and Wes Burns formed a front three full of pace and movement as the U's switched to a new-look formation, with another trio at the back in Johnny Mullins, Chey Dunkley and Jake Wright. That relied on Jon Meades and Tareiq Holmes-Dennis to provide the width outside Andy Whing and Josh Ruffels.
It worked well and United dominated possession in the first half hour, culminating in a 20th-minute opener from Burns. Whing made it by nicking the ball in midfield and feeding Burns. He drove at the defence as the front three swamped the two Robins centre-halves. Burns slipped the ball to Roberts whose shot was blocked. No matter: Hylton retrieved the ball on the right and clipped a delightful cross for the suspiciously unmarked Burns to twist and guide his header inside the left-hand post to make it 1-0 with his first goal for the club.
It looked as though they would be comfortably on top at the break as Cheltenham offered little up front in the first 30 minutes and were struggling to contain the United front three. Burns had two efforts blocked by desperate defenders after bursting through untracked from just behind the strikers and the U's were winning every challenge.
However, they had failed to take advantage of their domination and there was a curious inevitability when the visitors scored with their first shot of the afternoon. A ball into the feet of Jack Dunn, one of three youngsters brought in by Paul Buckle from Liverpool in midweek, gave the young striker chance to show quick feet and some quick thinking as he knocked it a yard from his feet and then swivelled to smash a low shot through the helpless Clarke to make it 1-1.
Unbelievably the U's then threw their excellent first 30 minutes away by going in at the break 2-1 down as another Liverpool lad, Stewart, was given time on the edge of the box and drove in a bobbling shot which slipped through the hands of the horrified Clarke and into the net to give the Robins an unlikely 2-1 lead at the break.
There was still hope, United attacking their own fans in the second half, although Cheltenham were visibly lifted by those two goals and started the second half as they had ended the first. The U's then settled, Ruffels flashing a 55th-minute free kick inches wide and Burns lifting an effort over the bar a minute later as they pushed for an equaliser. Roberts bent an effort wide via a deflection on 58 and the Yellows were building up a head of steam as the temperature plummetted on a freezing January afternoon.
Hylton somehow got through two challenges on 64 but couldn't beat Carson from close range but the lively Dunn had two chances at the other end to extend the visitors' lead, one being kicked off the line and the other blocked at source.
Sub John Campbell almost found the equaliser on 82 as he flicked a Meades corner goalwards but was denied by a defender on the line once more and with Cheltenham defending for their lives the final ball was never quite good enough for the U's, despite one final scare as Carson spilled a Ruffels shot in the last minute without anyone being able to get on to the rebound.
Having won so well at Plymouth to end 2014, this was a missed opportunity for United, especially after such an encouraging first half hour.
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Report by Chris Williams, Pictures by Steve Daniels
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