A goal with the first chance of the game earned Sunderland all three points at a blustery Kassam Stadium this afternoon. Jordan Willis's header kept the Black Cats's fine form going but they were pushed all the way by the battling U's who did more than enough to have got something out of the game.
It was the first 90 seconds, not the following 90 minutes that cost Karl Robinson's side. Having conceded a corner inside 45 seconds, they then let the first goal in from it when Willis headed home a Chris Maguire dead ball from six yards out: a soft goal and not what you need against a side who hadn’t conceded in six of their previous seven games.
If you want to blame the weather, then a swirling wind was always going to make high balls difficult, but there was hesitancy and United were now going to have to fight their way back into the game. Some gave it as an own goal rather than Willis: what you talking about?
Matty Taylor tackled keeper Jon McLaughlin to raise hopes as the U’s began to settle, although the loose ball went well wide on a rain sodden pitch as storm Dennis raged all around.
Sunderland had only a rising Maguire effort to worry Simon Eastwood, but the much better chances came at the other end. Dan Agyei’s pace twice took him into the area before he was nudged off balance and Taylor was close to reaching a Ruffels header across the six yard box as United started to get their rhythm back the longer the first half went on.
The new-look shape, with three centre halves and Anthony Forde and Josh Ruffels as wing backs, started to look very comfortable as they adjusted to the formation. The key to that is that Rob Dickie, John Mousinho and Elliott Moore are all comfortable bringing the ball out, and with Cameron Brannagan doing a superb job just in front of them there was still plenty of optimism despite being a goal down at the break.
If you will excuse the phrase, given the conditions, United stormed forward after the break and took full advantage of the strong wind at their backs to pin Sunderland deep inside their own half. The outstanding Ruffels had a volley tipped over, Henry saw a dipping effort similarly dealt with and the same player whipped three or four wicked balls right across the box without anyone being able to reach them.
Ruffels headed meekly into the side netting just after the hour and surely a goal was coming in a compelling, competitive game that was a credit to both sides given the conditions.
Somehow it never quite happened. Sunderland were always dangerous, Eastwood having to deal with several dangerous deliveries if not direct shots, and Charlie Wyke always a willing target for the clever prompting of Maguire, although he fluffed his lines after 76 minutes by heading an inviting cross wide when he should have done better.
It was the Yellows who had dominated possesion and looked the more likely to score though - there was a fairly clear handball inside the box with ten minutes left which went unpunished and the finale saw Moore thrown forward as the totem in the middle of five men strung across the Sunderland box (six in the last minute, when Eastwood joined him for a free kick, one last throw of the dice but booted clear by the jubilant defence).
Sometimes you can only hold your hands up and admire the hours on the training pitch that have gone in to defending as a unit as strongly as Sunderland had. United had matched that, shown bravery and no little skill, but on this occasion just come up short.
We move on to Wimbledon at home on Tuesday and a chance to get back to winning ways.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Steve Daniels and Tom Melvin, stats by OPTA