Ten-man Oxford United let a goal lead slip as they were beaten 2-1 at AFC Wimbledon this evening. Leading through a Josh Ruffels goal soon after the break, United saw James Henry dismissed in conceding the penalty which Joe Pigott equalised from before Alex Woodyard decided a pulsating match with a crucial goal for the battling Dons.
With two teams in great form, it was no surprise that the game started at a ferocious pace but incredible that at this late stage they somehow maintained that tempo for the entire 90 minutes.
Henry forced keeper Nik Tzanev into a save as early as the third minute, although it took a good block from Cameron Brannagan at the other end to deny Pigott an early chance to test Jack Stevens. Mide Shodipo and Ollie Palmer exchanged chances as the game continued at breakneck pace; Will Nightingale and Elliot Lee were the next two to threaten as the teams went head to head in the first half.
Brannagan was the driving force for the U’s, demanding the ball and demanding effort from those around him, including the excellent Lee and Mark Sykes, back in the side and bundled over on 37 to spark loud shouts for a penalty. Those cries were still echoing around the splendid new Plough Lane as Sam Long almost found the opening goal with a long-range cross/shot which forced the backpedalling Tzanev to touch over the bar just when he looked beaten.
Stevens matched that with a strong hand that propelled a George Dobson effort out for a throw in, such was the power, and there were superb headers from Eliott Moore and Rob Atkinson to touch crosses away from eager Wombles inside the area.
What the game needed was a goal and six minutes into the second half it came, of course, from one of the full backs. Sykes was key with a strong run from midfield and when he was stopped the ball came to Shodipo on the left. He cut back inside and rolled the ball back to the edge of the area. Ruffels did not hesistate or break stride, firing at goal and beating Tzanev with a low effort into the bottom right corner. 0-1 or Long 6 Ruffels 7 if you prefer.
United were flying now and Brannagan almost sealed the game and Goal of the Season at the same time with an outrageous effort from his own half which Tzanev only just got back to touch over the top before the whole game, perhaps the whole season, swung on one single moment.
Nesta Guinness -Walker created the first problem with a powerful run down the left that won a corner which Nightingale headed goalwards; Stevens was beaten inside the left-hand post and Henry, on the line, instinctively snaked out a hand. Although the ball was temporarily kept out of the net, it was of little benefit as Henry was sent off and Pigott rolled home the penalty for 1-1.
Down to ten, United were still trying to adjust when the Dons went ahead barely two minutes later. Again the danger came down the flanks but it was former Braintree Town and Peterborough midfielder Woodyard on the edge of the box to power his first goal for the Dons past Stevens to give the home side a priceless win which lifts them five points ahead of the dropzone while simultaneously moving the U's out of the play-off positions.
On came Winnall and Agyei up front and you simply could not fault the effort from the ten men who threw everything they had at their hosts without truly creating the clear chance they needed, one header from Ruffels clearing the bar but nothing else to worry the keeper.
It's not over, but a whole season now boils down to just three games. Results elsewhere will need to go United's way but three wins are required or I'd say these two teams will be meeting again next season.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Darrell Fisher, stats by OPTA