Oxford United kept their play-off hopes alive when they showed real character to come back from two goals down to beat Gillingham 3-2 at the Kassam Stadium this afternoon. Trailing to goals from Vadaine Oliver and Oxford old-boy Robbie Cundy, United pulled themselves back into the game through a Sam Winnall goal before Sam Long powered home a late header and a back-post volley in injury time to win a game that moves United into the play-off places for the first time all season.
With Mark Sykes and Brandon Barker ruled out, Anthony Forde and Mide Shodipo came into the starting eleven, but United found themselves penned into their own half for much of the first hour as Gillingham harried and chased and denied them any space to work in.
The U’s created just a couple of half chances in the first half, Forde firing wide from distance, Henry drumming a shot into the fingers of keeper Bonham, but the biggest danger was obvious at the other end: right-back Ryan Jackson’s long throws. Ollie Lee headed one wide as a warning but on 39 it was a throw from the same player from the right-hand side of the pitch that gave the Gills the lead; a high hanging ball was headed into a sea of bodies and Oliver twisted to fire past Stevens from eight yards out for a scrappy opener.
Stevens kept his side in it with a brave save from Oliver soon after the break and clawed a cross off the head of his former United youth-team colleague Cundy from the resulting corner, Cundy one of three ex-U's in the Gillingham side, alongside Alex MacDonald and Jordan Graham.
Captain Elliott Moore forced a good save from Bonham with a back-post header but United, knowing that results earlier in the day had opened the door for a place in the play-off places, were glad that Tucker's luck was out when defender Jack saw a goalbound effort fly wide off Sam Long's heel, Stevens again needing to tip Lee's corner away as it dipped alarmingly under the bar.
Dan Agyei and Winnall were given half an hour to try and find a goal but it was Cundy who became the cenrtre of attention, almost beating his own keeper Bonham as he tried to steer a superb ball from Sam Long away from danger before he recovered his bearings to joyously thump home the second goal past Stevens from close range at the right end as United were put under yet more pressure.
United needed a quick response and pulled themselves back into the game almost immediately as Winnall showed again what a good finisher he is, firing the ball across the keeper and into the far corner to make it 1-2 and set up a grandstand finish which deserved a baying crowd to see it.
Agyei began to unsettle defenders, crosses started to fly into the box, and there was a shift in momentum as United refused to give up. Steve Evans' side were now the ones penned back around their penalty area and with six minutes left it was the homegrown full-back pairing that gave the U's parity, Ruffels swinging in a magnificent cross and Long getting above MacDonald to smash his header past Bonham.
A point as a reward for persistence? Nope. Not having it. With 90 minutes on the clock, another deep cross and it was Long, homing in at the back post to thump his volley past Bonham and win all three points for a United side who simply refuse to give up the chase. Imagine the scenes in living rooms across the county. Imagine the chaos if they could have enjoyed it in person.
Into the play-off places, four to go, you never know...
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Steve Daniels, stats by OPTA