Oxford United ended a good week with a decent 1-1 draw at Sunderland this afternoon. After beating Burton on Saturday and then drawing Manchester City in the Carabao Cup following a win at Newport, the U's put in another excellent performance to pick up their first draw of the season when Ricky Holmes' opener was cancelled out by Charlie Wyke's goal for a Sunderland side reduced to ten men after Max Power's first half red card.
In a thoroughly entertaining game, United dominated the first half and had the first effort of the game when James Henry sent an off-target shot wide from the edge of the area. The U’s were far from intimated by playing in front of 30,000 fans and it was certainly the 1,280 away fans who you could hear in the opening minutes.
Shandon Baptiste in midfield, who will never have played in front of a crowd even half that size, was working hard alongside Cameron Brannagan in midfield, while Jamie Mackie, preferred up front with Holmes, James Henry and Marcus Browne joining him from slightly deeper, gave United a dangerous front four. Indeed, it took a flying save from keeper Jon McLaughlin to deny Holmes from 20 yards and a brave block by a defender from the resulting corner to keep a Josh Ruffels header out of the net.
All that was missing was a goal to cap a terrific opening and on 16 it was Holmes who delivered it. Baptiste burst in to the box and was upended right on the edge. Holmes took control of the situation and curled a free kick over the wall and inside the left-hand post to give his side a deserved 1-0 lead.
McLaughlin was slightly fortunate to cling on to the ball as three United players all tried to poke it home on 18 and then a minute later the home side’s frustration boiled over when Power took it all out on Browne with a late, lunging full-Power challenge that took out the United player and led to ref Heywood showing the former Wigan man a straight red. Shaun Derry wished him well as he headed for the tunnel and was also sent to the stands in the middle of a mad five minutes that saw fouls, tumbles and a flurry of cards and arguments as the game came rather wonderfully to life.
It was time for stout hearts and calm minds as the home crowd did all they could to lift their team, but United might have doubled their lead on 32 when Mackie got on the end of a Browne free kick but couldn’t beat McLaughlin - by far the busier goalkeeper - from ten yards. With the outstanding Chris Maguire walking a tightrope by committing a number of fouls despite an early yellow card, the Black Cats were flustered and United were full value for their half-time lead.
Maguire was taken off at half time with most Sunderland fans glad that he would avoid a second yellow and most United fans grateful that he now couldn't score against them, but any relief was short lived when his replacement Wyke levelled things up just seven minutes into the second half.
It was against the run of play, with United still on the front foot, but Wyke marked his first appearance of the season with a goal when he let fly from the right corner of the penalty box with a low effort that flashed through legs and in off the left-hand post with Mitchell helpless.
It was breathless stuff now. Captain Curtis Nelson almost put his side ahead with a towering header that flew just over after 56 minutes but the home side were making light of their man disadvantage and Jack Baldwin poked the ball inches wide on 61 with Mitchell already committed to going the other way, and then Josh Maja missing a great chance to put the ten men ahead.
United had chances as well, Browne firing into the crowd when well placed on 65 and Mackie getting the ball into the net on 73 when offside, and Sunderland racked up five yellows as well as the red as they began to drop deeper and deeper.
Brannagan curled an ambitious effort over on 86, a home defender almost sliced into his own net after 92 and in the end Sunderland will be grateful for a point that most United fans would have settled for in advance.
Any point on the road is a good one, a draw at the overwhelming favourites for promotion is even better. United might easily have had more but fully deserved the ovation from their fans at the final whistle.
Point gained and forward momentum maintained.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures Darrell Fisher, stats by OPTA
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