Goals from BIlly Bodin and Sam Long moved Oxford United top of the table as they beat Bristol Rovers 2-1 in a lunchtime kick-off at the Kassam Stadium this afternoon in a game that ended up with nine men for the home side and ten for the visitors.
Rovers, having won seven of their last ten games in Oxford, gave United more problems than most sides this season, but a red card for Jevani Brown gave them too much to do and Long's header sealed the win after Bodin's clinical early strike, despite a late strike from Aaron Collins and red cards for both Oisin Smyth and Stan Mills in time added on.
The win stretched United's winning run to five games and allowed them to leapfrog Portsmouth into top spot, but it was far from plain sailing and United were pleased that teenage keeper James Beadle was once again on top form.
First, the Brighton loanee needed to make an outstanding double save in the fifth minute before striker Chris Martin guided an unmarked header wide after eight, rather than finding that things in front of him were all yellow.
Having weathered that mini storm, United settled and started to push the Pirates back, and after 13 minutes they were ahead as Bodin hammered home against his former club.
As is so often the case, Ruben Rodrigues’ ingenuity was the key, with a clever flicked scoop of a pass that put Bodin in behind the defence. A covering defender was sent the wrong way and then the shot flew past the exposed Matthew Cox for an excellent goal.
Bodin has scored against both Bristol sides this season, but respectfully refused to celebrate this one.
Beadle was again about to deny Aaron Collins after half an hour and Rovers did get the ball in the net after 38 minutes only for an offside flag to rule the effort out; so far, no away team has scored at the Jim Smith Stand end of the ground this season but few have gone closer.
Aware of the danger, Liam Manning changed the shape of the team at the break, with the versatile Sam Long switching to full back in a four man defence, and Mills' direct running adding a new threat further forward down that flank. That helped, and now it was the U's making most of the chances.
Mark Harris, Rodrigues and Elliott Moore all went close, and with Josh Murphy replacing the hard-working Bodin just before the hour, United were not about to settle for a dangerous 1-0 lead.
Instead, Murphy was only denied by a good save from Cox as the game opened up. There was always an edge to things though, and on 63 minutes Rovers' task became much harder when Brown, having been booked five minutes earlier, clipped Murphy as he raced past and was shown a second yellow.
United should have made them pay when the impish Rodrigues again opened them up soon after, only for Murphy to fire wide with only the keeper to beat. There were further opportunities to kill the game off before Long settled it, rising to head a corner through a sea of legs and beyond the keeper for a goal that should have settled any late nerves.
Instead, Collins belted the ball into the roof of the net with two minutes to go to set up eight nerve-wracking minutes of added time. United saw it through, despite somehow seeing two men dismissed. First there was a red card for sub Smyth, who rolled the ball away in added time and was also shown a second yellow, and that was swiftly followed by a red for Mills after he lunged in to tackle Sam Finley on half way.
A grandstand finale but ultimately job done: a third win in a memorable week.
Portsmouth kick off later today. They may well reclaim top spot when they welcome Port Vale. United can do nothing to affect that.
All they can do is keep doing what they are doing: scoring goals, entertaining and winning excellent games of football.
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Report by Chris Williams, pictures JasonPix, Steve Edmunds. Steve Daniels and Darrell Fisher
Stats by OPTA