Oxford United finally ended their search for an away league win when a Jordan Graham free kick gave them all three points at Bloomfield Road this afternoon. Graham's superb strike in the first half decided a close game and lifted United out of the bottom four after a performance high on commitment and energy.
United have been close to that elusive away win before but tried a new formation and new line-up this time, switching to a 4-1-4-1 shape with the exemplary John Mousinho and outstanding Jerome Sinclair as the holding midfielder and striker. They were more compact and less adventurous in the opening exchanges, intentional after 90 minutes of end-to-end football at Accrington that was just too open.
That meant there was nothing to unduly worry the travelling Yellow Army in the first half; a deflected effort from Harry Pritchard to ease Simon Eastwood into action with a comfortable catch after 10 minutes and a couple of half chances and decent looking crosses which offered little threat, but the best chances of the first half belonged to the U’s, who enjoyed the better of the second quarter of the game.
The first opportunity came when Rob Dickie met a Luke Garbutt free kick on 28 minutes but headed into the outside of the side netting, with keeper Mark Howard scrambling at the base of the post. The second came with a powerful effort from Mark Sykes after 33 minutes that dipped in front of Howard, who found a way of fumbling it round the post. Sykes then had a similar effort two minutes later, saved more convincingly this time, but this time United were in no mood to let missed chances come back to haunt them.
Graham’s golden moment came after 40 minutes and owed plenty to Luke Garbutt, who won the ball, beat a couple of defenders and was upended on the edge of the box. Graham took charge and powered a free kick over the wall and in to the top left corner of the net for a textbook goal - amazingly his first for the U’s and just the second senior goal of his career. There will be plenty more for the highly talented Wolves loanee.
Blackpool raised their game after the break and once again it was time to stand firm. Armand Gnanduillet headed wide from three yards, Curtis Tilt flipped a header over as the ball pinballed around the area and Sam Long, excellent on his return, needed to make at least one important header as crosses started to rain into the United six-yard box.
With United fiercely determined to hold onto their lead, they conceded ground and that meant a huge workload for Sinclair up top; running the channels, closing down defenders and utterly selfless for the cause. Garbutt and Graham were quick to join him when they could, while Rob Dickie made one vital clearance on 70 as the ball bobbled around the area, with Eastwood for once stranded.
Garbutt almost made it 2-0 with a right-footed effort on 74, grabbed gratefully by Howard down to his right, before Eastwood came to the party with a brilliant save of his own to beat away a Joe Dodoo drive at his near post; this was as close as Blackpool were to come.
The last ten minutes were tense as the Tangerines tried to salvage a point, but United were in no mood to throw away all their hard work and slowly the home threat started to fade without truly troubling Eastwood - helped by United having three holding midfielders in front of their back four by that stage!
A massive three points based on belief and togetherness. A long way to go but the U's move out of the relegation places and for once got the reward that their sheer hard work had deserved. Get behind them next Saturday when they are at home to Scunthorpe.
Report by Chris Williams, pics by Darrell Fisher, stats by OPTA