Karl Robinson's first game as Oxford United Head Coach ended in defeat as his ten-man side were beaten 3-0 at Portsmouth this afternoon. An early goal from Kal Naismith and two second-half strikes from top scorer Brett Pitman earned Pompey all three points in a game that centred on a missed penalty and a red card for Alex Mowatt in the aftermath.
The first goal will have annoyed Robinson intensely because set pieces have become a bit of an Achilles heel for the U’s. First corner of the afternoon, delivered all the way to the back post where it was headed back for Naismith to give his side a simple fifth-minute lead. After losing their last three home games, an early boost like that got the fans behind Pompey who penned United back and pumped balls into the box to try and double their advantage.
United stuck to their guns though and kept passing the ball through the midfield diamond which had served them so well in beating Peterborough the week before. They were very unlucky not to be level at the break as they showed a bit of fight and character without a great deal of luck in front of goal.
They might have been level after 20 minutes when James Henry was set up by Malachi Napa and curled an effort against the bar from the edge of the box. Napa, making his full debut, buzzed around and worked selflessly alongside Wes Thomas up front and almost got his reward with a superb curling effort on 32 minutes that home keeper Luke McGee only just got a glove on to concede a corner. Rob Dickie powered a header at goal from that set piece but Portsmouth smuggled the ball off the line despite United’s best efforts to force it home. Napa has time on his hands and will score plenty of goals for the U’s; this boy can wait, but he has bags of energy and don’t let the smile fool you, he is a very determined young man.
Henry was again unlucky when a well-hit effort on 35 hit a defender without him knowing too much about it, and Mowatt clipped the top of the wall with a free kick as the Yellows dominated most of the first half but still went in a goal behind.
They started the second half in spirited fashion as well, Cameron Brannagan knitting things together in the middle, Ryan Ledson and Mowatt probing for a through ball and Henry at the centre of everything. All that changed on the hour.
United should have been level as the game's decisive moment unfolded. Henry forced a corner which was arrowing towards Thomas's head while Dickie was being bundled over alongside. Ref Breakspear pointed to the spot and United had their chance.
Mowatt sent the keeper the wrong way but the ball smashed against the right-hand post and away. As he held his head in his hands Nathan Thompson got in his face and goaded him for the miss and unfortunately Mowatt responded, raising his arms to slap him and leaving the ref little choice other than to brandish the red card, despite the provocation.
The ten men gave it everything but on 69 minutes were sunk. Jamal Lowe was the creator, finding space on the right and slipping the ball across the face of goal for Pitman to score the simplest of his 18 goals at that stage of this season. On 80 it was 3-0 as Lowe ran clear on goal and got the better of the bounce of the ball after a magnificent challenge from sub Ricardinho, who somehow got back to steal the ball. Unfortunately, Lowe retrieved it and squared for Pitman who tapped home for definitely the easiest of his 19.
Portsmouth were now rampant and further chances flashed just wide as they looked to rub salt into the wounds and the ten men tired, but the damage had been done.
One moment had turned the tide of the game but during the period when the sides were 11 v 11 United had played a high-energy game and shown plenty of commitment. Had the penalty been a foot to the left then they were the dominant force at that stage of the game and who knows? But at this stage of the season such fine margins are crucial and the U's will need to respond quickly next week when they welcome Scunthorpe on Good Friday.
By then their new Head Coach will have had more time to work with his players. Chris Wilder and Michael Appleton, United's most successful managers in recent years, both started with defeats. Get behind the U's next weekend and be part of a brand-new adventure.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Darrell Fisher, stats by OPTA