Oxford United bounced back with a 4-2 win over Rochdale at Grenoble Road this evening. Two goals from Marcus Browne plus strikes from James Henry and Jamie Mackie saw United home against a battling Dale side who were never out of a thoroughly entertaining encounter.
Chasing a fourth home win in a row - something they haven’t achieved in 15 years - United looked comfortable in the opening minutes against a Dale side who had switched to three centre halves to try and counter the pace of Gavin Whyte and Browne as they constantly drifted inside to join striker Mackie.
It didn’t work particularly well. Eleven minutes in and United were in front when Browne’s corner was smashed on the volley by the excellent Rob Dickie. It was half smothered but still seemed to have gone just over the line, but Mackie was taking no chances and planted it firmly home for the opener.
Three minutes later and the lead was doubled. Again Browne was the creator. Having already beaten his man for pace once, but not being able to beat the keeper, this time the on-loan West Ham man powered past Harrison McEahey to bring keeper Josh Lillis racing towards him. Browne took the keeper out of the equation with a cute pass to his right and Henry was calmness personified in firing the ball into the roof of the net to double the lead before we had reached quarter of an hour.
Rochdale stuck to their guns and looked neat on the ball, trying to play their way back into the game rather than lumping it forward, but other than a Connor Randall effort which was simple for Simon Eastwood to deal with, they rarely threatened to find a way past the mean United back line until suddenly on the half hour they were right back in the match.
United don’t concede many goals from open play but a free kick from Callum Camps bounced just in front of Eastwood who spilled it in most uncharacteristic style. His embarrassment was compounded when the ball ran straight to Henderson who scored one of the simplest of his 13 goals this season from six yards out.
The two sides drew breath after that, with Dale changing their shape and tactics and United trying to regain their earlier impetus but it was still easy on the eye and the only surprise was that it took until the 52nd minute for the next goal to arrive.
There was a a certain inevitability that it came from Browne, who has the world seemingly at his feet. Quick, powerful and skillful, he also has a knack of timing his runs into the box and when the superb Hanson burst forward and reached the line it was Browne in the right place to rifle home from six yards out to give United breathing space once again.
Breathing space perhaps but not yet game over against a battling Dale side who played with flair and belief. They were back in the game after 69 minutes when midfielder Camps let fly from 30 yards with a low effort that again eluded Eastwood and flew into the net to make it 3-2 and set up a fascinating last 20 minutes.
It took a superb save from Eastwood five minutes later to keep the U's in front, reaching a Henderson volley that seemed to be heading for the top left corner, but then with 12 minutes left United finally killed the game off when Browne struck for the second time.
It was started by a thunderous tackle from John Mousinho in the centre circle and a swift pass from the non-stop Cameron Brannagan. He flicked Browne free and the finish was superb, just flicking it up and over Lillis with impudent style and a technique that belongs way above League 1.
It was then just a question of whether he completed his hat trick. He should have done when he ran clear but got the ball stuck under his feet, then could have done when his 25-yard drive went just wide. No matter. There will be plenty more goals to come from him.
United had deserved their win and continue to rise up the table. One defeat, at Bradford on Saturday, in the middle of 11 games and the perfect response to that temporary setback.
See you at Plymouth on Saturday.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Steve Daniels, stats by OPTA