Oxford United gave it their all this afternoon but just couldn't tame the Shrews as Paul Hurst's Shrewsbury showed why they have been promotion contenders all season long. Two goals from Shaun Whalley and a deflected effort from Jon Nolan earned the home side all three points but United showed plenty of spirit and twice pulled themselves back into the game through goals from Wes Thomas and Joe Rothwell as Karl Robinson sought his first victory as Manager.
Robinson changed things up after the draw with Scunthorpe on Good Friday, with Josh Ruffels coming into the side at left back, Jon Obika starting after impressing in that game and Agon Mehmeti joining him in attack. Those changes freshened things up and it was Mehmeti’s ball across for Obika that almost found the opening goal after just two minutes when Rothwell stole in behind them both and had an early effort deflected just wide among loud appeals for a penalty as he was caught while striking the ball. That led to two corners in quick succession, the second clipping the top of the bar as James Henry whipped the the ball goalwards.
The Shrews have been in the top three all season though and soon started to pile the pressure on, ramping up the intensity and forcing Simon Eastwood into two dashes from his goal and one flying save to recover situations where the U’s had needlessly conceded possession too close to their own goal. The ever-reliable keeper saved his best for the 15th minute though, with an extremely sharp reflex save to keep a clever flick from Stefan Payne out as United defended for their lives.
Henry fired a good effort wide after nice one-touch flicks from Rothwell and Mehmeti; Obika tested keeper Dean Henderson from the other side of the box and it was enthralling to watch as the two sides went happily at each other in a very open first half. United’s best chance came after 34 minutes when Mehmeti started a move that ended with Ledson flicking a clever pass for Obika who hit his shot well from the edge of the box but was left frustrated when Henderson flew to his left to punch the ball away, with the rebound flying back on to the shins of Henry and then wide by a yard.
After matching their hosts for 40 minutes, United were then undone by two swift goals either side of the break. Eastwood matched his previous work with another good save from a deflected effort from the winger on 36 but on 40 minutes the dangerous Whalley had his revenge as he opened the scoring. Given a chance to whip a free kick into the box, he struck it low towards the right-hand corner of the net and Eastwood had a hopeless choice to make with forwards rushing at him and knowing any touch would take it into the net. In the end everyone missed it and the ball sneaked into the goal to leave Robinson having to give a team talk when 1-0 down at the break for the third game in a row.
This time, whatever he said barely had time to register before the Shrews were 2-0 up just three minutes into the second half. With the ball rolling invitingly towards him 25 yards out, there was no doubt that Nolan was going to let fly, and he struck the ball well, but Eastwood had it covered until the sliding Brannagan , straining every sinew to block the effort, defected the ball in to the opposite corner of the net with the keeper wrong-footed and helpless.
The Shrews were rampant now and Stefan Payne and Nolan both had outstanding chances to extend their lead even further, Payne missing the target when clear on goal and Nolan seeing his effort touched wide as the men in black desperately tried to stay in the game. Bryn Morris smacked a header against the bar when unmarked and six yards out after 56 minutes and United had ridden their luck.
What do they say? Stay in the game and you never know what might happen. On the hour, Robinson swapped his forwards, bringing on Malachi Napa and Wes Thomas, and when Ruffels fired in a cross that pinballed around the Shrewsbury box, Napa got involved and the ball ran kindly for Thomas, who finished neatly from close range to bring his side briefly back into contention.
Unfortunately, having clawed their way back into the game, United couldn't complete their comeback and were 3-1 down within two minutes. Again it was Whalley doing the damage, driving the ball past the horribly exposed Eastwood from inside the box and surely ending any hopes of an Easter comeback?
You try telling this United squad that, because they refused to lie down and instead roared back and were just one goal behind, against the odds, when Rothwell let fly from 25 yards and saw his shot whip past the flying Henderson via a slight flick off the leg of backtracking defender Mat Sadler.
Credit to both sides, because on a pudding of a pitch after a typically sodden Bank Holiday, they both played some excellent football and defied the conditions to produce an excellent, exhilarating 90 minutes that was high on drama as well as commitment. The final ten minutes were fast and frantic but the final ball was never quite there and the Shrews, who head for Wembley next weekend in the Checkatrade Trophy final, do so on the back of a confidence-boosting win.
United meanwhile go in to a potentially season-defining week.Three games, all at home, Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Darrell Fisher, stats by OPTA
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