Carlisle United 0 Oxford United 2Goals from Chris Maguire and Liam Sercombe earned Oxford United a massive three points at Carlisle this afternoon. Maguire's early penalty and Sercombe's second-half strike ensured that United's season boils down to one simple equation: beat Wycombe Wanderers at home next Saturday and they will be promoted.
‘Start fast’ has been Michael Appleton’s message all season long and welcomed by ticker tape, flags and a huge roar United could hardly have made a better start, banishing any early nerves inside four minutes.
Flowing forward down the right flank, Danny Hylton powered past his man and worked the ball to his left for Maguire, who drifted past Luke Joyce and was upended. Penalty and the Scottish international was the calmest man in the stadium as he rolled the spot kick into the bottom left corner to make it 1-0.
The magnificent 2,238 travelling fans were bouncing and roaring their men forward and the Yellows were playing with such confidence that a second goal seemed inevitable. A Hylton header missed one post, a low strike from O’Dowda missed the other and the first ten minutes were all Oxford.
Carlisle play a more direct style of football and United had to deal with more and more balls into the box as the Cumbrians started to get a foothold in the game after that first 15 minutes. Joyce sent a decent effort just wide of Benji Buchel’s right-hand post after 20 minutes but Josh Ruffels would have scored one of the goals of the season a minute later as superb interplay from O’Dowda and Alex MacDonald carved the Carlisle defence wide open, only for Ruffels to side-foot wide from ten yards out as he stretched to apply the finishing touch.
It was open and end-to-end even at that stage. Jake Wright, leading by example, made one great block, Jonjoe Kenny matched his captain’s commitment with another but United also had two menacing breakaways during that time where they failed to make the most of an extra man on the counter attack. O’Dowda, back in the side after Kemar Roofe's ankle injury ruled him out, then created a shooting chance from a third break after 34 minutes but thumped his shot wide after out-muscling the last defender. The influential Maguire piled one last effort over the bar before the break, but at half time it was job done even if the lead should maybe have been more convincing.
Joe Skarz had battled hard but was clearly struggling for mobility and was replaced at half time by John Lundstram, with Ruffels switching to left-back. Maguire, having switched to a more central role, almost made it two on 50 minutes when he intercepted a ridiculous pass out from keeper Mark Gillespie that trickled towards the empty goal before Gillespie recovered. However, the longer it stayed at 1-0 the more the nerves began to jangle. Chey Dunkley needed to get a vital touch on a Charlie Wyke effort on 55 and sub Jack Stacey flashed another shot wide on 57 as Keith Curle's side looked to end their home season with a positive result.
At the other end Hylton couldn't guide a Maguire free kick on target on 65 and was controversially ruled to be outside the area when fouled moments later, when it looked to my eyes as though he was at least three yards inside the box. However, that was balanced out by ref Philip Gibbs also missing the ball striking Kenny's arm at the other end on 70, with Hylton having to clear off the line from the corner awarded instead of a penalty. Big decisions need to go your way at big moments like that.
What we needed was a second goal to reward the Yellow Army for their support and settle everyone down. Step forward Sercombe. A key man all season, with 17 minutes to go he was making a typical run into the box to get beyond the strikers. O'Dowda rolled him in and Sercombe absolutely thrashed the ball past Gillespie from the right edge of the six-yard box. His leap and punch of the air was matched by 1,000 pairs of arms behind that goal.
Sub Jordan Bowery had a shot tipped on to the post but the game was won by then and the U's travelled home with their destiny in their own hands.
This set of players have been fantastic away from home all season, losing just twice on the road. Today's performance came under intense pressure but you would never have known it as they responded heroically. Next Saturday is already a sell out and a 46 game season will boil down to just 90 minutes.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures Darrell Fisher