Oxford United's remarkable record in the Checkatrade Trophy continues after Alex Mowatt's injury time winner sent them through at Gillingham tonight. Trailing early on, United hit back through Jack Payne before Mowatt rifled them into the next round in the 92nd minute.
United had the first chance of the evening when the recalled Canice Carroll fired too close to the keeper in the second minute but had already seen their former striker Josh Parker drag an effort wide of their goal before they fell behind in the ninth minute. Parker rolled Scott Wagstaff in to the area where he got into a tangle of legs with Ricardinho. Ref Charles Breakspear had a little think before pointing to the spot where Mark Byrne made no mistake.
With Parker penning United back and having two shots blocked by Aaron Martin, United were struggling to find any rhythm in the first 20 minutes but started to get Jack Payne on the ball and make inroads in the second quarter of the game. They created a good opportunity after 25 minutes when Jon Obika cleverly rolled James Henry inside a defender to force Gills keeper Stuart Nelson into a decent save, and five minutes later a neat turn from Carroll led to a good cross that a defender just nicked off the head of Alex Mowatt.
No matter, as moments later United were level after they kept the pressure on the Gills back line following that incident. Obika had a header cleared off the line from the corner and when Mousinho recycled the loose ball, Carroll again found a bit of space to set Payne in on goal. Nelson came out but was left helpless as Payne looked up and beat him with a sly curling shot into the far corner.
Honours even at the break, United saw an early chance poked wide by the otherwise excellent Henry from a perfectly placed cross from Alex Mowatt, although Parker did much the same thing from similar range at the other end after 54 minutes.
There was neat play in the midfield, no lack of endeavour and a senior debut for Malachi Napa, adding youthful energy on the right wing for the last half hour and fizzing a shot over the bar with one of his first meaningful contributions. The free-flowing open game of the first half had become a lot tighter by then though, with both defences protecting their keepers well and far fewer efforts at goal until home sub Tom Eaves forced Eastwood into his best save of the night on 70 minutes, flying to his right to push a well-struck effort away.
There was drama after 71 minutes when United invited Parker to try his luck from 25 yards and he accepted by driving the ball against the bar with Eastwood beaten. The ball bounced down on the line but as yet the technology only exists to stream games live in this competition, not to decide on goalline incidents. Probably a good thing...
Napa had a shot blocked and then looked to have been tripped inside the area but both sides seemed to have the penalty shoot-out on their minds as the game drifted towards its spot-kick finale. Except Mowatt. Two minutes into injury time he strolled on to a loose ball on the edge of the box after more good play from Napa and smashed a superb low shot past the stranded Nelson and into the bottom right corner to seal United's progress.
Last season United had three penalty shoot-outs on their way to Wembley, losing two*! This year they avoided that drama - and sometimes the luck is just on your side. They couldn't reach Wembley a third time in a row could they?
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Steve Daniels, stats by OPTA
*which were still draws.