Oxford United's season will continue with a trip to Wembley after a dramatic penalty shoot out win over Portsmouth this afternoon. Trailing to a Marcus Harness goal, United were level when Ellis Harrison headed into his own net in first-half injury time but then an incredibly tight play-off second leg just could not be decided from open play, leaving the whole season to be decided from the spot. Step forward Cameron Brannagan.
As with the first leg, it was the home side who pressed until the first drinks break, this time United. Jamie Mackie forced keeper Alex Bass in to a good early save and James Henry drifted a ninth-minute drive wide as the Yellows got any early nerves out of their system.
Mackie, in for Matty Taylor up front, worked tirelessly for the cause, never giving Portsmouth’s defence a moment’s rest while Mark Sykes, preferred in midfield to Ben Woodburn, was easy on the eye and quick to get on the ball but all of United’s forward players were also quick to get back as well, Marcus Browne making one or two early challenges as the U’s tried to stop the flow of passes towards the dangerous Ryan Williams on Pompey’s right wing.
The tightest of games started to open up, slightly, after the first break and Simon Eastwood needed to be alert to make a good save from Harrison before Harness found a way to put Pompey in front from the simplest source. A long straight ball, a flick from Harrison and Harness took a touch then fired past the flying Eastwood to edge his side in front.
United had seen an Elliott Moore header and another Henry drive at the other end but just like the league game between the sides, or the first leg, it was Kenny Jackett’s side in front and United having to chase. Could they do it? Why ask?
Injury time at the end of the first half and a Cameron Brannagan drive was headed away for a corner. Whipped in by Henry and heading for the gloves of keeper Bass it instead flicked the head of Harrison and was in the back of the net for an own goal that changed the team talk for both managers.
It didn't change the flow of the game too much; there really hasn't been much to choose between these sides all season and it stayed that way through a nerve-wracking second half that left the fans gnawing their nails to papier-mache.
if you remember that both squads had sacrificed so much to get themselves ready for this fixture then it's little wonder that tempers started to boil and frustration started to show in an attritional next 45 minutes. Both managers went for broke, throwing on John Marquis and Matty Taylor in quick succession, with the former hitting the woodwork immediately.
A Brannagan effort went wide, a Taylor half chance was blocked, Ruffels headed over and United had all the pressure but Portsmouth stood firm, holding sub Dan Agyei literally at arm's length to keep the scores even and set up extra time.
Portsmouth had half chances, United had opportunities to break but the importance of the occasion won through and so to penalties...
Marquis scored, Woodburn levelled. Evans made it 2-1, Forde made it 2-2. Brown thumped home for 3-2, Taylor scored for 3-3. McGeehan was denied by Eastwood, Mousinho drilled home for 4-3. Hawkins levelled leaving Brannagan with the moment...
Even the cardboard fans tried to turn away.
A year ago this week United kicked off pre-season against similarly kitted opposition: Glasgow Rangers. To have shared the adventure over the last 12 months has been unforgettable. We'll be back. At Wembley.
Report by Chris Williams, images by Dave Fleming and Rex Shutterstock