Another extraordinary home game saw Oxford United beat Charlton Athletic 2-1 in the most dramatic of fashions today. Trailing to a Lyle Taylor penalty, United roared back to lead through Curtis Nelson and Luke Garbutt. Young keeper Jack Stevens then became the hero with a superb save to keep that lead intact on his debut after Simon Eastwood had been sent off, swiftly followed by Charlton's Chris Solly, as both sides ended the game a man light.
Charlton had the bit between their teeth from the very start, Simon Eastwood palming a Taylor effort away after 30 seconds of an action-packed opening in the bright spring sunshine. Taylor didn’t take long to gain his revenge though. Four minutes gone and Ahmed Kashi slipped in midfield and was robbed by Joe Aribo who went at the heart of the United defence. Nelson stepped in to try and tackle him but ref Darren Drydale adjudged it a foul and Taylor sidefooted home the penalty to give the Addicks an early lead.
It looked ominous and United were under intense pressure. To their credit they changed shape, hung in there and then took over. Set pieces are often key in League 1 and two quality deliveries later and the U’s were ahead.
Garbutt was creator and scorer of the two goals. The equaliser came from a deep ball to the back stick from the on-loan Everton man, which was met by a late run from Nelson and a thumping left-footed volley into the roof of the net gave keeper Dillon Phillips no chance. Even better, five minutes later. Free kick 25 yards out and Garbutt stepped up to curl an unstoppable dead ball beyond Phillips to make it 2-1.
Joy from the home fans, despair from the travelling support who had, for 14 minutes, been in the automatic promotion places. Jonny Williams lifted a decent chance over the bar just before the half hour but United were coping with things nicely and looking dangerous, with Garbutt and Sykes joining the attack from out wide and James Henry lurking just behind front man Jerome Sinclair.
However, ten minutes in to the second half and a major reshape was required as Eastwood departed. It looked simple enough to deal with as a long ball bounced towards the keeper with Taylor chasing it down, but the ball held up and didn't carry as far as Eastwood thought, meaning he was two yards outside his area when he caught the ball. Not dangerous but an obvious red card.
Stevens has waited patiently for his chance and is a more than capable replacement but will have been dreaming of better circumstances in which to become the 100th graduate of the OUFC youth team to make his first-team debut.
Nelson and Dickie seemed determined not to let him show what he can do; throwing themselves into blocks and cutting out danger at source, while the introduction of Jamie Mackie for Kashi was a brave move which meant that Charlton, having to chase at least a point, now had two strikers to contend with.
It was looking like being a long 20 minutes but then things were suddenly levelled up once more. Solly was so nearly the hero; lining up a shot at goal only to find three defenders throwing themselves at him. The ball broke free, Mackie picked it up and Solly dived in, catching him on the back of the heel and giving ref Drysdale an interesting choice. Knowing that Solly seems to be the hardest word, he chose not to put it in the book and sent him off instead.
There was still time for a spot of heroics from Stevens who somehow reached behind him to claw the ball away from the line for a miracle save which earned him a standing ovation from the fans and hugs from just about every other player in yellow as tension and the entertainment level rose by the second.
Do you want controversy? Then stick with the U's because on 87 minutes Sinclair was free and running at goal when sub George Lapsie scythed him down. Garbutt galloped free but couldn't beat the keeper while Mr Drysdale punished Lapsie with just a yellow card. It mattered not.
Another brilliant win and once again United showed that they could cope with one of the best teams in the division. Had they not had such a bad start to the season, who knows where they might be right now?
Team work, determination, another local lad into the first team and three more points. A very Good Friday indeed.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures Steve Daniels and Tom Melvin, stats by OPTA