A DAY that started with great hope for the Gulls ended with Oxford solidifying their position as the early-season pace-setters in League 2.
United shaded a tight first half but were hit by a Deane Smalley strike immediately after the interval and then a screamer from James Constable on the hour, although both goals were shrouded in mild controversy.
The Yellows hit back with a tap-in from substitute Jordan Chapell but, just as Plainmoor began to prepare for a late siege, Oxford completed their 3-1 victory with decent finish from Asa Hall.
United manager Alan Knill made two changes from the draw at Morecambe, one enforced and one tactical. The decision taken out of his hand came at right-back, where the normally left-sided Tom Cruise replaced the suspended Dale Tonge.
The strategic switch was on the wing, where Courtney Cameron was preferred to Chapell. On the bench, Elliot Benyon returned from a head injury to bump Ashley Yeoman out of the squad and Kirtys MacKenzie filled the slot vacated by Cruise.
Oxford boss Chris Wilder was also forced into one change to the team that defeated Bury 2-1 at home seven days ago. Striker Dave Kitson lost his race for fitness and was replaced by midfielder Scott Davies in a move that allowed the dangerous Alfie Potter to play a more advanced role alongside front-man Smalley.
A super-sloppy start from the Gulls immediately presented Davies with a chance to square a pass for Potter, but the scuffed ball was scrambled clear by a panicking Yellow defence, much to the relief of Billy Bodin, who had given away possession straight from the kick-off.
Despite the early scare, United settled into the blustery conditions and Cameron warmed the hands of Oxford ‘keeper Ryan Clarke with a jabbed effort from the edge of the penalty area.
The Gulls then slipped into a silly minute of indiscipline. First, Cameron was booked for a needless foul on Potter and goalkeeper Martin Rice received the same punishment for a petulant response to a corner awarded to the visitors.
Both sides were struggling to find a great deal of rhythm in the swirling wind but Wilder had a different problem in midfield, as Sean Rigg pulled up with a hamstring injury on 24 minutes and was replaced Hall. The fire was burning for both sets of players moments later, as an almighty scramble possession following a United corner brought some of those tasty tackles you never see in pre-season.
The Yellows were gradually turning the screw with a succession of corners and the general flow of the game was toward the visiting end, although the number of realistic goal-scoring opportunities remained limited.
Nothing was really happening until Clarke misjudged a deep cross from Nicholson and while Bodin did well to turn the ball back across goal, there was nobody in Yellow positioned to smash into an empty net.
The half was then completed with a blocked strike by Nicholson dropping to Cameron, who dummied beautifully before a low shot across goal and all the credit went to Clarke for a brilliant one-handed save to keep the scores level.
Rain returned for the start of the second period and referee Graham Salisbury obviously left his wipers in the dressing room, as he missed a blatant foul on Aaron Downes that led to a deep cross well cleared by Cruise.
Sadly, the poor decision soon cost the Gulls, with the subsequent corner from David Hunt picking out the near-post dart by Smalley, who steered a neat side-foot volley past the helpless Rice.
United’s response was spectacular and unfortunate, as Callum Ball carefully watched a looped clearance on to his left-boot and unleashed a thunderous volley that had the bar shuddering, and Clarke grateful for not getting in the way.
Wilder was then forced back to his bench after an awkward challenge from Downes left Potter nursing a bloodied nose and the sizeable Constable was quickly brought on as a replacement.
The Gulls were suddenly galvanised and Cameron found space for Harding to curl a fabulous shot toward the top corner that Clarke did well turn wide. The resultant set-piece yielded a goal-bound header from Krystian Pearce but Oxford had enough bodies in the way to scramble clear.
United next won a free-kick that was smashed into the bottom corner by Ball but referee Salisbury had already blown for encroachment by Oxford, a decision that naturally went down badly with the Plainmoor faithful.
Yellow pain was multiplied seconds later, as a long clearance from Clarke evaded the entire United defence and Constable ran into the space behind before flashing a superb dipping volley beyond the stranded Rice. A lovely goal to score but horrible to concede.
United now had a mountain to climb and Knill looked to change the pattern by removing Harding and Cameron for Chapell and Damon Lathrope.
The move worked within three minutes but it was all down to the quick-thinking of Ball, launching a swift throw down the line for Hawley, who saw his sliced shot spin perfectly for Chapell to convert with a simple tap-in at the far post.
Oxford will claim the throw was taken from the wrong place but it was perhaps a case of levelling up, with United questioning strange decisions in the build up to both goals scored by the visitors.
There was no doubting the next goal, however, as Constable guided the ball wide to Hall, who, despite seeing his first shot well saved, kept his balance to crack the rebound past the unlucky Rice.
Benyon immediately replaced Bodin in the next step of an increasingly desperate rescue mission, although Clarke almost helped in that cause when he allowed a Tom Newey to squirm under his feet and bobble inches wide.
Sadly, there was nothing else to report and the Gulls travel to Northampton next weekend in the hope of righting the wrongs.
Gulls [4-4-2]: 13 Martin Rice; 21 Thomas Cruise, 5 Krystian Pearce, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 11 Courtney Cameron [12 Jordan Chapell 66], 7 Lee Mansell [capt], 8 Ben Harding [6 Damon Lathrope 66], 10 Billy Bodin [26 Elliot Benyon 79]; 9 Karl Hawley, 16 Callum Ball. Substitutes [not used]: 15 Niall Thompson, 30 Kirtys MacKenzie, 31 Daniel Sullivan, 33 Conor Thompson [GK]
Booked: Cameron 13, Rice 14
Oxford [4-4-2]: 1 Ryan Clarke; 13 David Hunt, 6 Jake Wright [capt], 19 Johnny Mullins, 3 Tom Newey; 18 Scott Davies [37 Josh Ruffels 87], 16 Andrew Whing, 17 Danny Rose, 7 Sean Rigg [14 Asa Hall 23]; 11 Alfie Potter [9 James Constable 57], 10 Deane Smalley. Substitutes [not used]: 4 Michael Raynes, 15 Ryan Williams, 20 Tyrone Marsh, 21 Max Crocombe [GK].
Booked: Davies 50
Referee: Graham Salisbury
Attendance: 3,126 [701 away].