Four second half goals helped Oxford United overcome a brave Hartlepool side and progress through to Monday night's draw for the fourth round of the FA Cup. Trailing to an early Mark Kitching goal, United showed patience and belief and two superb finishes from Rob Hall and Shandon Baptiste and late strikes from Tariqe Fosu and Matty Taylor were enough to send them through.
Hartlepool were fantastic at the back all afternoon and will feel aggrieved by the scoreline, with former U’s defender Michael Raynes organising and encouraging those around him, and in any cup game you are always going to get a chance.
On nine minutes they took full advantage of some very uncharacteristic Oxford defending to take the lead and raise hopes of an upset. Rob Dickie's back pass was underhit but could still have been cleared, but instead Jordan Archer and Elliott Moore admired it, Kitching seized the initiative and ran through to poke it past the stranded keeper to spark wild scenes from the excellent 779 away fans who had made the long journey south.
United didn’t panic and dominated possession but couldn’t convert either a string of corners in the opening period or a number of half chances around the box; Hall pinged one wide on 26, Raynes blocked from Dickie, keeper Beeney threw himself on a Baptiste effort on 34 minutes and every time United threatened the goal a Pools player stubbornly threw themselves in front of it in a frustrating first 45 minutes.
The second half was a different story though. It was always going to be either a touch of class or a stroke of luck that got United back into the game and seven minutes into the second half Hall provided the former with a clever finish to draw his side level. Good work from Mark Sykes left Hall in space on the edge of the box and he used a defender as a shield to curl a perfectly placed effort into the bottom left corner with Beeney helpless.
United then spent a long time camped around the Hartlepool penalty area as they tried to find the winner. Baptiste did all he could from midfield, Hall pushed and teased, Long swung in crosses and United continued to turn the screw as Hartlepool dropped deeper and deeper to try and cling on for a replay.
We told you about brilliance as a method of breaking down a stubborn back line? The second goal was a wonderful example. Baptiste had no right to get past two men on the edge of the box, even less to squirm past another two, stay on his feet, commit the keeper and then roll the ball home. It was a magnificent effort and deservedly put United in front while also entering the fierce competition to find United's Goal of the Season.
Could Hartlepool respond? Well they tried. They sent men forward but in the end that was their undoing. First sub Fabio Lopes scuffed a shot across goal and Fosu, captain for the day, was at the back post to tap home for 3-1. Then Fosu backheeled, Sykes was tripped and Taylor finally ended the visitors' resistance with a thunderous penalty that booked United's place in the next round.
A fine display, four more goals and a place in the fourth round. United are having a terrific season and now have two big home league games in a row against Rotherham and Ipswich Town. Come and join us...
Report by Chris Williams. Pictures by Steve Daniels, stats by OPTA