Rotherham United moved top of the league as a fine first half performance earned them all three points at the Kassam Stadium. Two goals from former United man Kyle Vassell and a header right on half time from skipper Richard Wood were enough to move the Millers top despite having to withstand a much improved performance from the U's in the second half in which a Marcus Browne goal gave hope of an unlikely comeback
Boss Karl Robinson, watching on from the stands while serving a touchline ban, resisted the temptation to throw his new signings in from the start, instead sticking with the players that have got United into a great position so far. Cameron Brannagan returned in midfield and Elliott Moore came in for John Mousinho in front of the returning Simon Eastwood but United were out of sorts right from the start and the visitors were sharper and created the clearer chances in the first half.
It took until 16 minutes for an opening to arrive at either end. When it did Vassell took full advantage to give the Millers the lead. It was created by pace out wide where the impressive Chiedozie Ogbene ran away from first Brannagan then Gorrin who couldn’t risk a second card after an early booking. That contributed to the winger being able to whip a low cross into a superb area between the keeper and the defence. Former U’s striker Vassell met it and converted and United were behind to the first league goal conceded at home since August.
The second wasn't far behind. Eastwood got an important touch to an Ogbene drive that was heading perilously close to the top corner on 25 minutes and Hakeeb Adelakun squandered a good chance before Vassell doubled the lead in the 33rd minute. In behind the defence, Vassell calmly lifted a bouncing ball over the stranded Eastwood and suddenly the U’s had a problem.
The Millers continued to grind down the home defence and worked their socks off to close down the U’s all over the park in a hugely frustrating first 45 minutes, with a long delay after Ruffels and Gorrin bashed heads merely prolonging the agony - literally for the bandaged Ruffels.
A tough task reached improbable if not impossible three minutes into injury time when captain Wood made it 3-0. This time Vassell was provider with a clipped cross which picked out Wood at the back post to nod back across the stranded Eastwood and make it 3-0 at the interval.
Something needed to change and I pity anyone on the stairs when the Manager headed down to the dressing room at the break to read the riot act. On came Nathan Holland and Marcus Browne and that gave a fresh impetus as the crowd tried to lift their team and get them back into the game.
Rotherham, with their fans singing 'Top of the League', looked like a side who deserved that billing as they threw themselves in front of every cross or shot and looked to hit on the break, Vassell forcing Eastwood into a save just after the hour, but started to concede ground and invited United to see if they could find a way through. Dangerous.
United hadn't tested visiting keeper Daniel Iverson other than a Ruffels header half way through the first half which the keeper scrambled away but started to gain momentum from the hour mark onwards. Sub Matty Taylor did get the ball into the net albeit from an offside position and suddenly on 70 they clawed their way back and just created the first glimpse of a comeback when Browne took advantage of excellent work from Mark Sykes and Taylor and drilled the ball beyond Iverson to make it 1-3.
It should have been 2-3 four minutes later when a poor back pass presented Taylor with a chance to further close the gap. Of all the players available, Taylor would be top of the list to score when one on one with the keeper but his effort rolled a foot wide of the left-hand post and United's best chance of an unlikely comeback had gone. A turning point? Possibly, but conceding three goals before half time was probably more damaging...
There were further chances and the eye-catching Holland was only denied by a fine save from Iversen amid a cavalry charge of yellow shirts as the U's threw caution to the wind for the final 15 minutes. Browne smashed a free kick just the wrong side of the post with six minutes left and Ruffels floated one last chance wide but it just wasn't to be United's day.
Eastwood at least kept it at 1-3 with a good save late on but there were positives in the second half provided we can all just erase the first 45 minutes from our collective memories.
A home game against Ipswich on Tuesday provides the perfect chance to set a few things straight. See you there.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Steve Daniels and Tom Melvin, stats by OPTA