Oxford United gave Blackburn a scare with a spirited performance at Ewood Park but a goal from former U's striker Jack Payne gave the home side a 2-1 win and sent them into the Championship once more. Having fallen behind to a Darragh Lenihan header in the first half, United fought back gamely and levelled through James Henry but were undone when Payne came off the bench to seal a 2-1 win for Rovers.
Mind you, there was almost a sticky start for the home side when Cameron Brannagan, playing in a more advanced role in midfield, drilled a first-minute shot inches wide of the left-hand post. With Curtis Nelson restored at the back and John Mousinho sitting just in front of the back four United had a 4-1-3-2 shape and it caused the home side problems with Brannagan, Henry and Joe Rothwell all joining strikers Jon Obika and Malachi Napa at every opportunity - even Todd Kane got forward from right back to almost score after 15 minutes.
However, that chance came after the opening goal because on 13 minutes the early optimism took a dent when the home side took the lead. It was simplicity itself: a free kick from Charlie Mulgrew and from the moment it left his boot it was only ever going on to the forehead of Lenihan, who powered his header past Eastwood to lift the roof off Ewood Park.
The strong arm of Eastwood kept out Adam Armstrong on 22 but United were having to dig deep just to stay in the game; the excellent Rob Dickie made an important stop on 23 and the ever-determined Kane hacked off the line on 33. Given the circumstances, fight, commitment and determination were the first requisites and the men in black were fighting for everything. Brannagan saw a drive deflected over the bar on 37, Mousinho headed the resulting corner into the arms of keeper David Raya and United had underlined just how much they have improved in recent weeks: see Wigan away match report for details.
That was exemplified by their former Blackburn keeper. No sooner had Eastwood upended Elliott Bennett and conceded a penalty on 41 minutes that he was up to deny Mulgrew from the spot and keep it at 1-0 at half time: another great moment from this most consistent goalkeeper.
He matched that save with another good one from Bennett early in the second half and Rovers were still the team on top but Malachi Napa - he of the permanent smile and non-stop running - had two left footers blocked by defenders as United threatened to take the edge off the promotion party.
Eastwood fisted away a powerful effort from Dominic Samuel on 65 but then came that party pooper from Henry, a reward for the magnificent 1,290 fans who had travelled to support their team.
Napa started it, moving the ball right to left, with Obika ending the move with a shot that was blocked. Ruffels, excellent at left back, kept the move alive, crossing a low ball in and Henry hoovered up the chance with a cute flick of the boot to beat Raya and level things, momentarily sucking the entire atmosphere from the ground in the process.
Earlier in the week Karl Robinson said that Henry had 'single handedly kept United up' with his goals since Christmas. This maybe wasn't as important as his header at Doncaster in the last away game, but in terms of a message maybe it was? If United can match a team destined for the Championship then who knows what could happen next year...
Blackburn, already promoted, needed to respond if they were to have any chance of being Champions and with 14 minutes to go it was sub Payne who got the party started again. Only just on, the on-loan Huddersfield man ghosted to the right of the box, cleverly finding space, and fired the ball beyond even Eastwood- a deflection further helping the ball beyond the keeper's grasp.
Blackburn had a goal chalked off for offside but with news filtering through that Wigan were winning at Doncaster, the emphasis had changed by then to promotion rather than title. Good luck to Blackburn, who deserve their success, even if their fans did celebrate slightly prematurely with a pitch invasion before the final whistle.
United ended the season with the encouraging sight of 17-year-old striker Owen James making his first appearance from the bench for the last ten minutes; there will be plenty more to come from him. But that aside, there were once again plenty of signs of a growing belief and spirit from the U's who go into the summer in decent shape and with plenty of hope.
See you next season...
Report by Chris 'Don't take me home until I'm drunk' Williams, pictures by Steve 'Stormy' Daniels, Stats by OPTA
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