Oxford United overcame the odds to pick up a more than useful point at home to leaders Rotherham United at the Kassam Stadium this afternoon, a 0-0 draw making it four points from two home games played in the most extraordinary of circumstances this week.
It may have been the two teams top of the form table, but with half a squad missing through Covid or injury, United were the underdogs against the leaders and they were pressed back for much of the first half before finding their feet and imposing their own game on the visitors after the break.
They did ride their luck at times though and were relieved on nine minutes when the highly rated Michael Smith planted a header against the post when unmarked six yards out, the first of two let-offs for the U’s before the break.
There were terrific tackles from McNally and Long, United’s central partnership, a couple of smart bits of handling from on-loan Connal Trueman and other than a top-spinning effort from the recalled Marcus McGuane, not too much to trouble keeper Viktor Johansson at the other end. United were stubborn and disciplined and Trueman didn’t truly have to make a save in the first 45 minutes, however one-sided they were.
Mind you, that was more to do with the Millers missing the target again after half an hour, when Freddie Ladapo, even closer than Smith, thumped a header against the bar before it was expertly cleared for a corner by the back of a falling defender. Two bad misses, with a third from Smith on 40, heading right across goal having won the ball at the back post, and United still in the game.
United’s midfield of McGuane, Brannagan and Kane are all fine ball players but were spending more time firefighting than firing forward passes, terrific as they were. They started to drive the U's forward more after the break, although the pattern of the first half seemed to be repeating itself when Ben Wilis volleyed another golden chance over the fence with Trueman more worried about defending his car than his net.
Sometimes one incident fires a team up. This time a typically thunderous tackle from the always committed Jamie Hanson typified the fighting spirit and lifted the home crowd. A just-as-characteristic jink inside and shot at goal from Nathan Holland followed soon after and the game was much more even in the second half.
United were grinding down the Millers and for all the first half possession stats, it was United who had more shots on goal; the excellent Steve Seddon forced a good save on 72 minutes and the game went end to end in the closing stages, with Man of the Match McNally having to nod a late effort off the line to keep the deserved clean sheet.
Tough work on a freezing day, but a job well done and to emerge from the week unscathed is a fantastic effort from all concerned. Half the squad will now return for successive away trips to Sunderland, Doncaster and MK Dons. Things don't get any easier, but there are more people to share the load...
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Report by Chris Williams, pictures Steve Daniels and Steve Edmunds, stats by OPTA