Oxford United's unbeaten start to the season ended at Northampton today as a Sam Hoskins header gave Northampton all three points. United did all they could to claw back a point but couldn't find a way back into the game despite playing against ten men for the entire second half after Jason Taylor was sent off. Try as they might the U's could find no way past the impressive Adam Smith and his defence, with Danny Hylton''s penalty miss proving crucial in the same incident that saw Taylor dismissed.
With Kemar Roofe injured, Callum O'Dowda returned on the wing, while Liam Sercombe's suspension meant a start for the excellent John Lundstram in central midfield alongside Danny Rose. United had to withstand some early pressure. There was a terrific challenge from Chey Dunkley in the third minute as Northampton almost forced the ball home from a corner and an equally good one from Joe Skarz after nine as Hoskins threatened to wriggle clear.
They then had a great opportunity for a classic counter-attack opener on 11 when the ever-willing Hylton held off two weak challenges and flicked the ball through for O'Dowda, whose first touch was uncharacteristically heavy and allowed home keeper Smith to save at his feet and set the tone for much of what was to follow.
That opening aside United were finding it hard to find their usual rhythm against a well-drilled Cobblers side, playing against a background of unrest in the stands. The home fans held a half-hearted protest, raising cards with question marks printed on them and chanting 'we want answers' but on 22 they forgot their problems as they took the lead with a well-worked opener. The influential Taylor rattled an accurate pass through for Nicky Adams on the right wing and his cross picked out Hoskins for a deft header that gave Sam Slocombe no chance from eight yards out. There had been a foul on Jake Wright in the build-up but in truth the Cobblers had looked the more likely side to find a breakthrough.
United have a habit of raising their game when they go behind and for the rest of the half they definitely improved, with Lundstram and Rose starting to dominate the middle of the park. They worked their way back into the match and right on half time were handed a lifeline when Taylor had a moment of madness. With the ball out on the right wing, Taylor inexplicably flattened O'Dowda on the edge of the Northampton box. Ref Neil Swarbrick was right on the spot and signalled that an elbow had been used, dismissing Taylor and awarding the U's a penalty. With no Roofe, and Alex MacDonald having missed his last one, Hylton assumed responsibility but his penalty was too close to Smith who got down to his right to save and leave his side a goal to the good but a man down for the second half.
The U's almost found the equaliser inside 45 seconds of the second 45 minutes, as another excellent through ball from Rose set Ryan Taylor through for a run at goal but Smith was smartly out to deny him on the edge of the box.
Dunkley is a threat when he goes up for set pieces, although he suffered for it on 52 as he clashed heads and needed to go off to be patched up for repairs. United were on top by that stage and the Cobblers had gone into their shell. Dunkley's dipping header on 64 was tipped over by Smith and with their fans doing all they could to pull them towards the packed away end, it was increasingly a question of whether United would be able to beat the excellent Smith.
Lundstram's range of passing allowed the U's to repeatedly switch play to try and use the width to get past the Northampton back four but the final ball just couldn't pick out a yellow shirt inside the packed penalty area. The home side managed time well and spent much of the last ten minutes in United's half to end a week of questions with a positive answer. United, who gave AJ George a late debut, were beaten for the first time since March. This was an afternoon of frustration but not one of dismay. Every unbeaten run has to start somewhere - why not against Portsmouth next Saturday on Fans Day...
Report by Chris Williams, Pictures by Darrell Fisher, Stats by OPTA
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