Oxford United picked the perfect moment to turn in their best performance of the season to beat Portsmouth 2-1 this afternoon. First half goals from Cameron Brannagan and James Henry gave United a valuable three points despite Brett Pitman netting for the visitors in the second half. But it was a flowing, fiercely committed display that gave the home fans the most to cheer about.
United got at the leaders from the very start and both centre halves went close with headers; Rob Dickie headed a fifth minute corner wide of the mark and Curtis Nelson had a 21st minute effort caught by keeper Craig MacGillivray. Gavin Whyte exposed his full back a couple of times at pace and Jordan Graham showed some neat touches on his second home debut while Jamie Mackie chased, challenged, harried and hurried defenders if they were foolish enough to try and take a touch in a frantic opening.
Pompey had a decent effort from Gareth Evans go just wide after 22 minutes but United had been the better team and were in front midway through the half with a fine strike. If you trace it back far enough you will find Simon Eastwood only just clearing under pressure from Jamal Lowe after losing his footing. From that hurried clearance Whyte set the ball rolling from a Henry pass, allowing Brannagan to touch the ball in to space and then hit it powerfully past the keeper from 22 yards out. Good goal, good player.
Pompey were provoked and Lowe was perhaps lucky to stay on the pitch after leading with his elbow and catching Hanson as they challenged on halfway. That was pretty much summed up their first half in which Eastwood was untroubled and the U’s gave every ounce of effort for the cause and were deservedly 2-0 up right on the break. Graham this time started it all off with some clever wing play and a ball into Mackie who turned down the invitation to shoot and instead worked it back for Henry who hammered the ball in to the roof of the net for 2-0.
It could easily have been three or four within ten minutes of the resumption. Whyte and Graham were creating chaos on the wings and Mackie, Hanson and Brannagan all went desperately close with well-struck shots from inside the box. Hanson, by the way, had a stormer, throwing himself into challenges, using the ball well and looking very accomplished in his right-back role.
Portsmouth have one thing on their bench that United don't currently have: a proven goalscorer at this level. Having only just come on, Pitman looked to have no chance when a cross came in behind him. However, with tremendous athleticism he bicycle-kicked it past the startled Eastwood and suddenly we had a game on our hands again.
To their enormous credit, United refused to just sit deep and try to protect their now one-goal lead. Dickie almost doubled the lead with a header on 70 and the final quarter of the game became more end to end than Karl Robinson would maybe have liked for his 50th game in charge of the U's.
When needed, Nelson and Dickie defended well but in reality everyone involved did their jobs extremely well. There were cameos from new signing Ahmed Kashi and Marcus Browne, there was some clever game management, and most importantly of all there were three points.
A good first home game of the year, now United have to ensure it is not a false dawn. Upwards and onwards.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Steve Daniels, stats by OPTA