Oxford United and Wigan Athletic produced a real Christmas cracker at the Kassam Stadium in one of the best games of football of an entire incident-packed season.
United threw everything at their high-flying visitors, coming back from two goals down in a game in which their preparations had once again been severely disrupted, but were finally sunk when James McClean won it for Wigan with a goal five minutes from the end of an action-packed 90 minutes.
Through Covid tests, injury or illness, including James Henry who tweaked a calf muscle in the warm up, United were missing an eleven who would more than hold their own at this level: Stevens, Hanson, McNally, Thorniley, Holland, Gorrin, Brannagan, Kane, Henry, Winnall, Cooper.
How do you cope against a side in great form like Wigan when that happens? It would seem that whatever is thrown at Karl Robinson's team they just smile and face it head on, although they needed all of their resilience after Will Keane put the visitors into the lead after just seven minutes when he nodded into the roof of the net after a Max Power corner had been headed back at the far post.
United had to dig deep just to stay in the game, surviving a couple of close shaves, but somehow they adjusted and started to push Wigan back. Anthony Forde shone at right back, Marcus McGuane showed discipline in a holding role behind Billy Bodin, and Mark Sykes, Gavin Whyte and Williams worked tirelessly alongside Matty Taylor up front.
Indeed, Taylor should have levelled after 20 minutes when Whyte squared the ball only for United’s top scorer to hit the bar from ten yards out.
That proved costly after 31 minutes as Wigan temporarily dampened United’s enthusiasm with a second goal that should by rights have killed the game. Steve Seddon looked to have cleared a deep cross far enough, but Power, Oxford fans’ version of David Warner, was onto it in a flash and thumped the ball on the half volley beyond the dive of the helpless Simon Eastwood.
Surely United couldn’t come back from there? Well, clearly nobody told them because from the very next attack Whyte stormed into the box at the end of a tremendous move and Williams strode on to the ball and sent it beyond keeper Ben Amos to bring his side right back into contention at the break.
The fans were right behind their beleaguered team and urged them forward towards the fence end in the second half. United responded. On the hour they were level when Taylor atoned for the earlier miss after a superb run from Forde ended with the perfect pass for the unmarked marksman to slide the ball joyously home.
If you want to see why Forde is such a key part of United's set up, then go forward three minutes and he was risking life and limb to throw himself in front of the ummarked Gavin Massey to make a crucial block and make sure that all the hard work involved in the comeback wasn't undone.
Both sides went for the win; brave blocks denied Sykes and Bodin, Eastwood was smartly off his line to stop Lang at close range, and Moore made a crucial block to keep it at 2-2.
But with five minutes to go tired legs finally caught up with the home side when McClean advanced down the left flank and, with everyone expecting a cross, just kept going until he found himself with only Eastwood to beat, firing across the keeper to finally end United's stubborn resistence.
No shame in defeat, indeed plenty to admire. United had given it absolutely everything, and you cannot ask for more.
They will now rest up and then hit the road for Portsmouth on Boxing Day. Can't wait.
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Report by Chris Williams, pictures Steve Daniels and Steve Edmunds, stats by OPTA