Oxford United's five-game unbeaten run came to an end as Hartlepool secured a vital three points in their quest to stay in the Football League. A first-half goal from Ryan Bird and a second-half follow up from Neil Austin gave League 2's bottom side a win in a game that saw ref Patrick Miller stretchered off during the second half.
The unchanged Yellows started strongly and there was no sign of what was to come as they created good early chances. There was an opening effort from Josh Ruffels in the first minute as the U’s switched on from the very first minute. Kemar Roofe nodded an O’Dowda cross on target after three minutes and United had already had more efforts on target than the entire 90 minutes against Plymouth on Saturday.
Pools, fresh from a hope-giving win at Morecambe, were looking to win back-to-back games for the first time all season and grew into the game when midfielder Nicky Featherstone crashed a spectacular effort against the outside of the post in the 11th minute after chesting the ball forward and taking the shot on the volley. Ryan Clarke then had to make an excellent save on 16 as Brad Walker angled a shot towards the top corner from the edge of the box, so the league’s bottom side were giving as good as they got.
They had loud shots for a penalty waved away on 29 when former United forward Jon Franks went down under a challenge from Joe Skarz and precarious as their position appears right now, they are definitely not going down without a fight.
United almost found the breakthrough after 32 minutes when Roofe rolled defender David Mirfin but strike partner Hoban couldn’t steer his cross goalwards, and 30 seconds later they were a goal behind as Pools surged forward and took the lead. Franks made the incisive move, striding past the defence and powering a low shot which Clarke did well to get hands to. Sadly the rebound favoured the visitors and Bird was on hand to slot the loose ball into the net and make it 1-0 to the men in blue and white.
The Yellows came close when O’Dowda nodded a loose ball beyond keeper Flinders but against the base of the left-hand post on 40 minutes after a scramble and they had created chances without truly being at their most convincing in the opening half, where the hard-working visitors had closed them down as quickly as any side all season.
United rightly received a rocket at half time and that drove them forward early in the second half but on 52 that endeavour was made to count for nothing as Hartlepool doubled their advantage. Mullins, excellent all night, looked to have chested a difficult ball away from danger but ref Miller and his soon-to-be-promoted assistant seemed to have different ideas on whether it was hand or chest. The ref looked as though he overruled his assistant and pointed to the spot. Bird stepped up but couldn’t beat the flying Clarke. Once again, a great save and the keeper deserved better protection as the ball bounced straight to right-back Neil Austin, who planted it into the roof of the net to make it 2-0.
The U's were stunned and threw on James Roberts to try and find that elusive goal. They were perhaps just gathering momentum when Alex MacDonald weaved towards goal and ref Miller tried to get out of his way but fell awkwardly. There was a six-minute delay until the ref departed on a stretcher and in some distress - hopefully the injury is not as serious as it looked.
The change of ref aside, it became a very different game after that interval with the U's now throwing everyone forward, including sub Armand Gnanduillet, and Hartlepool dropping ever deeper but never dropping their feverish work-rate. Roofe's well-struck shot on 88 was sneaking in at the near post until Flinders got fingertips to it to tip it round the upright but otherwise the U's simply didn't test the visiting keeper enough.
Credit to Hartlepool, full of fight and spirit even through the nine minutes of injury time and their fight goes on. United will look back on 90 minutes of frustration and will need to show plenty of fight themselves to ensure that they maintain the gap they have worked so hard to open between themselves and the bottom few clubs.
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Report by Chris Williams, Pictures Steve Daniels, Stats by OPTA
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