Oxford United broke down Braintree's brave resistance to reach the second round of the Emirates FA Cup this evening. Trailing to a penalty from visiting skipper Kenny Davis, the U's showed character to come back and win the tie thanks to goals from Liam Sercombe and a brace from Patrick Hoban at the Kassam Stadium.
As in the first meeting, United found the Braintree defence stubborn opposition; only one team has conceded fewer in the National League this season. Liam Sercombe had an early shot blocked as the Yellows attacked the East Stand with a strong wind predominantly at their backs as it billowed around a blustery Kassam Stadium.
There were one or two half chances: Michael Cheek, fresh from a hat trick at Halifax on Saturday, clipped Braintree’s first effort over the bar after nine minutes; Kemar Roofe’s low shot was comfortably saved by visiting keeper Will Norris, but the opening 20 minutes were cagey as the two sides sparred rather than going for the big punch.
Norris and his defence were struggling to clear their lines at times as the wind began to howl and United made inroads down the right though George Baldock and Callum O’Dowda, on his return from international duty, but chances were few and far between as the Iron wall held firm. Alex MacDonald almost forced the breakthrough on 29 with a 25-yard free kick that clipped the top of the bar but then out of nothing Braintree were in front on 33 minutes.
Some neat passing on the right allowed the industrious Chez Isaac to roll into the area between MacDonald and Joe Skarz. Isaac went down and ref Darren England took his linesman Daniel Robathan’s advice and awarded a penalty. Skipper Davis was calmness personified, first stopping his run up to replace the rolling ball on the spot as it blew forward, then casually waiting for Benji Buchel to commit himself before passing the spot kick into the net for a 1-0 lead.
Would United panic? Of course not. Instead they kept playing their stuff, passing, moving and pressing the visitors back, and on 42 they were back on level terms as Baldock threaded a ball down the right-hand channel and the pace of Sercombe took him clear. Norris came out but Sercombe had room to work in and slipped it past the keeper with a minimum of fuss to make it 1-1 at the break.
MacDonald forced Norris into a good save in the first minute of the second half as the U’s attacked into the wind but Braintree saw Alex Woodyard almost put them ahead once more with a 49th-minute shot that flew just over Buchel’s bar.
It was proper cup football and Sercombe volleyed beyond Norris only to see the ball strike the bar on 51, Roofe flicked a clever effort narrowly wide on 56 and United were making all the running.
On 64 they turned that into a second goal as Hoban made it two goals in two starts. Roofe was the architect, deceiving defender Matt Paine and powering towards the left hand post, drawing Norris towards him. A flick of the foot and the ball was across goal for Hoban to slot home and the U’s were 2-1 up.
Braintree had dug deep and shown why they are in the play-off places in the National League but United's fitness started to come into play as the game went into its closing stages. Some intricate build up play ended with MacDonald smashing an effort just wide of the far post. Hoban then had another effort blocked, and then on 78 he booked their passage from the spot. O'Dowda lifted the ball and tried to round Mitch Brundle who baulked him, and Hoban made no mistake with the penalty. Three goals in two games from the Irishman, reward for hard work and self-belief.
Job done? Ultimately yes, but this Braintree side have spirit in abundance and with six minutes left might have grabbed a lifeline when Dunkley bundled into the back of Sean Marks and Davis had a second chance to score from 12 yards. This time he tried to be a little too cute and Buchel got down to his right to grasp the penalty and ensure that it was the U's rather than the Iron who went through to face Forest Green Rovers at home in the next round.
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Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Steve Daniels, stats by Opta
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