Oxford United went out of the Emirates FA Cup in the most dramatic fashion tonight as three goals in the last ten minutes of extra time sent Bristol Rovers through in an astonishing game.
After a cagey first half, the game burst into life in the second with Sam Finley firing Rovers ahead only for Matty Taylor to inevitably level and send the game into extra time.
United then looked to have taken control with two goals in the first two minutes of the extra period, first from Billy Bodin and then a header from Steve Seddon to seemingly send them through to face Sutton United in the next round before a late goal from Sion Spence and a screamer from Aaron Collins levelled and Spence poked home a fourth to spark amazing scenes at the Memorial Stadium.
United surprised their hosts during the 90 minutes with a three centre-half formation that asked Anthony Forde and Ryan Williams to provide the width in a four-man midfield in front of them. It worked well and Rovers didn’t force Simon Eastwood into anything more than a couple of routine saves in the first half.
The U’s settled smoothly into their new shape and created the best two chances of the first 45 minutes, first through Mark Sykes after 19 minutes with a shot saved by James Belshaw after Dan Agyei had set him in on goal, and then when Agyei roared away from the defence on 23 but was caught by a chasing defender and had to check back and try and find Sykes once more rather than get his shot away.
At the other end, the calming presence of John Mousinho meant United were very solid, and the powerful Luke McNally was impressive, but there were few chances before the break and what we needed was a goal to turn a good game into a proper cup tie.
Two-and-a-half minutes into the second half we got it when Antony Evans ran from deep at the exposed back line. A simple pass to his right and Finley strode on to the ball and confidently drove it inside the left-hand post to give the Gas a 1-0 lead.
Enter their Nemesis. In the first game, a triple substitution saw United lose momentum. This time it had the opposite effect when Taylor picked up the ball and rolled it for the excellent Williams who drove past Harry Anderson and was tripped. There was little question of who would be taking the penalty and Taylor tucked it away with supreme confidence to delight his new fans and thoroughly annoy his former admirers.
Now we had all the fun of the FA Cup. Eastwood parried two piledrivers, United went for the win and again employed a surprising shape: right-back Sam Long at left-back, left-back Steve Seddon as left wing, Ryan Williams in central midfield and a flexible formula that was 3-2-5 in defence and 3-0-7 when in possession.
Seddon thought he had won it but his goalbound shot hit a defender on the line, Rovers dropped deeper and deeper as James Henry sprayed the ball into spaces others hadn't known were available, and all we were missing was a dramatic late winner. Evans nodded the best chance wide for Rovers before a frantic second half headed for extra time.
The magnificent Mousinho had nothing left to give and was replaced by Elliott Moore, and within seconds of the restart United were ahead for the first time. Williams was again the provider with a wonderfully timed touch through for Bodin to run clear, sit the keeper down and calmly roll the ball home for his first Oxford goal.
Shall we say there was a different reaction from the home fans as the second of their old boys scored?
Seconds later and United were prematurely starting to look forward to facing Sutton. Taylor was the provider this time with a cross from the right which Seddon deftly headed home for his third goal of the season and a 3-1 lead that looked to have won the game.
However, Rovers were far from finished.
Eastwood made an excellent save from Jones, his effort matched by his opposite number with a flying save to deny the non-stop Williams, but even Eastwood had no answer when the unmarked Spence made it 2-3 with ten minutes left and set up a superb ending.
United did all they could to kill the game off, but when Collins drilled home the equaliser the whole ground was on the edge of their seats before Spence poked in to an empty net after a deep cross was recycled at the back post, and United were done for.
A terrific cup tie - the best competition in the world - and good luck to Rovers in the next round.
United will lick their wounds, regroup and go again.
See you at Wigan on Saturday.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Steve Edmunds, stats by OPTA