Oxford United 1 Chesterfield 1
Oxford United started life in League One with a draw against Chesterfield this afternoon. Wes Thomas's debut goal was cancelled out by a free kick from the returning Ched Evans with 15 minutes to go as both sides got their season under way with a point.
United had the better of the first half despite an enforced change to the expected line up after summer signing Christian Ribeiro fractured his ankle in the very last training session before the big kick off. In came Sam Long, straight into the action with an excellent challenge and looking very assured at right back alongside Curtis Nelson, Chey Dunkley and Joe Skarz.
Chris Maguire sent a free kick inches wide after seven minutes with the first real effort of the season and the Scottish international's dead ball delivery helped create a number of chances at free kicks as United pressed. Ryan Taylor ghosted in behind the Spireites' defence on 20 minutes but couldn't beat keeper Ryan Fulton from a tight angle but it was Taylor who provided the focus of much of the good football that United played, holding the ball, making intelligent runs and leading the line very well.
Liam Sercombe had a couple of half chances beaten away by covering defenders but a goal was definitely coming. On 31 it was debutant Thomas who marked an impressive first game with the first goal of the campaign. It was an expertly crafted goal as well. Maguire, irrepressible, dropped deep and sprayed a magnificent pass behind the visiting defence for the sprinting MacDonald to latch on to. Intelligently he fired his shot across the keeper from the right and when Fulton parried it, the ball rolled perfectly for Thomas to score one of the simplest goals of his career from six yards out.
It was no more than the home fans deserved for their incredible support: the giant banner that welcomed the players read 'Try And Stop Us Now' and in glorious sunshine the U's had simply taken up where they left off in May.
Other than a wayward effort from Jon Nolan on 40 minutes and a mistimed header from skipper Gary Liddle, Chesterfield had rarely threatened in the first half and Simon Eastwood had looked very assured in goal, although there was a worry shortly before the break when Chey Dunkley hobbled off, meaning Josh Ruffels came on at left back and the excellent Joe Skarz moved inside to partner the impressive Curtis Nelson.
Nelson made a couple of key interceptions in the opening ten minutes of the second half as Chesterfield came at United with more purpose after the break but the U's should have been home and hosed when Thomas ran onto a clever ball from Sercombe, held off a defender but could only stab his shot against the outside of the post as Fulton came out to meet him.
With both sides keeping the ball on the superbly prepared playing surface, it was very easy on the eye but gradually the visitors started to impose their own game on the U's. Eastwood kept his side in front on 54 when Evans somehow found acres of space on the penalty spot and fired in a powerful effort that Eastwood reached to his left at full stretch. Evans, understandably rusty, might easily have had a hat-trick, blazing a great chance into the car park and then touching the ball too close to Eastwood when presented with a clear run at goal just after the hour. However, when Ruffels conceded a free kick 25 yards out, Evans finally found a way to notch his first goal. His free kick was hit with power and flew through the sea of legs to arrow perfectly into the bottom left corner: the first goal Oxford have conceded in over seven hours of league football.
Until the season settles down we won't really know how valuable this point was. What we can say is that Chesterfield look a strong unit and in Evans have a goalscorer of the highest calibre. United, playing at this level for the first time in 15 years, had more than matched them and will be pleased enough with a first point on the board, if frustrated not to have held on to their lead for all three.
Last season started with a draw at home on the first day. Look how that all ended up...
Fifty/50 winning number 472812 wins £1,144.50
Report by Chris Williams, Pictures by Steve Daniels and Darrell Fisher, Stats by OPTA
See Highlights and Reaction in Yellow Player HD