A second half goal from Danny Hylton sent Oxford United top of Sky Bet League 2 this afternoon. Hylton's calm finish to end a flowing team move lifted the U's top of the pile after an open, entertaining game against a battling Hartlepool side who pushed them all the way.
In an even first half, debutant Chris Maguire's first action was a twisting run at the Hartlepool defence that set the U’s on the front foot straight away on a blustery north-east afternoon with a cold wind swirling around Victoria Road. The on-loan Rotherham forward also saw a 25 yard shot deflected wide after 20 minutes and was a constant link between midfield and attack, as well as taking the majority of set pieces in and around the box for the U’s.
United, all in yellow, had a slightly different formation in the opening stages with Maguire, Pat Hoban and Kemar Roofe interchanging positions and making intelligent runs that were causing the Hartlepool defence plenty of problems but it wasn’t one-way traffic in the first half by any means. The home side played some neat football despite the windy conditions and created three decent efforts in the first half hour.
Nicky Featherstone thumped an early effort wide of Benji Buchel’s goal and Carl Magnay headed wide by a similar margin on 16 before Jake Gray hooked a good effort on to the bar on 29, with Buchel seeming to get a touch on the ball to help it on its way, the best chance of the first 45 minutes.
Alex MacDonald drilled a low shot into the side netting a minute later and a typical Liam Sercombe run ended with Matthew Bates having to make a wonderful block from the midfielder’s shot after a sublime flick from Hoban had allowed him to rampage into the box on 32. Chey Dunkley and Roofe had further efforts as United pushed forward but neither side had made enough of some good chances, with Buchel saving a Rhys Oates header on 44 to keep it at 0-0 at the interval.
Maguire had the first shot of the second half, home keeper Trevor Carson fumbling it past the post, but again it was Hartlepool who should have been in front when striker Mikael Mandron stole on to a through pass and raced clear. Buchel was off his line in a flash and spread himself well to beat the striker’s effort away, but the on-loan Sunderland man will reflect on a chance he should really have taken, one which could have meant a very different outcome.
From that miss United hit a purple patch. The hard-working Hoban dragged an effort past the right-hand post on 65 and a fierce MacDonald free kick flew through the wall on 68 and forced Carson into a good save. The Yellows were knocking at the door now and on 70 minutes the pressure told as Hylton scored a great team goal to give them the lead.
It came from a Hartlepool corner, cleared away to set the U's on the counter. MacDonald surged past one challenge when he was fouled, powered past another man and clipped the perfect ball in from the right edge of the box. Hylton, on as a sub for Maguire, had matched MacDonald's run step by step and was perfectly placed to plant the ball back across Carson and into the net to make it 1-0.
The last two games, against Dagenham and Newport, have also seen United facing tireless opponents who have matched them for most of the game. But when required they seem to have players capable of winning matches with moments of magic. Another excellent goal, and this time United had lifted themselves to the top of the table.
There was a moment of anxiety on 78 when Buchel picked up a Lundstram back pass and skipper Johnny Mullins needed to throw himself in the way of the free kick, but Carson kept his side in it two minutes later with an excellent save down to his right to push Sercombe's shot round the post after the midfielder had made a characteristic run beyond the strikers. A brave block denied Hylton on 84 after another clever passing move and Carson made another good save from the same player on 88, but as well as making chances United were winding down the clock in a very professional manner.
Clean sheet, away win, top of the league. Job done.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures Darrell Fisher. Stats by OPTA
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