Oxford United left it late before Marcus Bowne deservedly gave them a point against high-flying Sunderland at the Kassam Stadium this afternoon. Sub Browne tapped home in the 88th minute to level after Jimmy Dunne's opener and give United a point their hard work and effort had deserved.
United soaked up early pressure and were briefly down to ten men when Jamie Mackie - preferred to Jerome Sinclair up front in the one change to the side - took a knock to the head and had to be patched up. However, Simon Eastwood was largely untroubled in the first half hour and it was United who came closest to an early goal with three very presentable chances.
First, Josh Ruffels thumped a header downwards from a 20th-minute Brannagan corner but couldn’t beat the sprawling McLaughlin. Then Jordan Graham, excellent on the left flank, couldn’t get enough bend on a 21st-minute shot after more clever play from the influential Brannagan, before the best chance of the lot came to the bandaged head of Mackie, who did everything right in heading a Hanson cross back across the keeper only for McLaughlin to claw the ball away and keep his side level.
Had one of those chances gone in, who knows? Sunderland had looked neat on the ball without opening United up, but took the lead with their first effort of the afternoon. It was a simple goal: Grant Leadbitter corner from their left, high in-swinging ball and giant centre half Jimmy Dunne outmuscling the defence to send a header almost through Eastwood from six yards out.
United rallied and the rest of the first half was evenly matched while the start of the second half was played exclusively in the Sunderland half.
Again United created a hatful of chances. Brannagan was off target, Henry saw a header late and couldn't get his effort on target and Whyte sliced wide on 56 after getting in behind the retreating Black Cats defence. McLaughlin saved well when Henry got a clear sight at his goal on the hour, and Nelson sent the ball wide from the corner that followed that chance. Would they rue them? Not this time...
With the crowd of 10,383 roaring them on, there was a terrific atmosphere and no shortage of effort. An hour of hard running for Mackie was followed by half an hour of Sinclair on his home debut, with the away side already starting to 'game manage' their lead at that stage. Still the chances came: Nelson miscuing, Branagan blasting over in the follow up, and then Browne asked to pick the lock and find the equaliser in the final 20 minutes. As usual, he had the answer.
Sunderland will probably be a Championship side again next season but weren't at their most free flowing and had to show their defensive resilience for much of the game as United pushed them back. There was always the danger of a break, and a couple of late set pieces did cause concerns before being cleared, but then came the equaliser and a moment of great satisfaction for Sinclair.
Having left Sunderland in January, the on-loan Watford forward did brilliantly to knock Dunne off the ball, skip round another challenge and then square for Browne to tap home - unselfish from Sinclair who must have been so tempted to shoot.
It sparked wild scenes from the home fans who had seen their team give their all once again in a fine game of football. A win over Portsmouth followed by draws with Barnsley and Sunderland have shown what they can do against the top teams at home. Be sure to come and get behind them again next week when we welcome Peterborough...
Att: 10,383 Away:1,808
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Steve Daniels and Tom Melvin, stats by OPTA
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