ONE goal in the opening six minutes was enough to condemn Chris Hargreaves to his first defeat as United manager.
Deane Smalley scored the early winner for Oxford and while the Gulls toiled hard and competed well throughout, they were unable to breach a home side fighting hard for promotion.
Two long weeks after his first team selection as boss and Hargreaves held his patience to name the same side that defeated Wimbledon 2-0 in London. The one change came on the bench, where new signing Shaun Cooper was preferred to Nathan Craig.
Oxford manager Chris Wilder was somewhat more ruthless after his side was dumped out of the FA Cup by Charlton in midweek. Michael Raynes, Sean Rigg and Scott Davies all dropped to the bench, and were replaced by Ryan Williams, Danny Rose and former Gull Nicky Wroe, who is on loan at the Kassam from Preston.
The postponement of United’s home fixture with Northampton last weekend had left Yellow feet twitching for action and upon arrival at the stadium, both sides were greeted with a muddy and awkward playing surface.
Within a minute of kick-off, the Gulls were swiping desperately to clear in the swamp and Oxford’s towering striker James Constable pounced with an effort well blocked by goalkeeper Michael Poke.
The home surge continued at pace and Damon Lathrope produced an excellent cover tackle to momentarily halt the pressure, but it was merely delaying an inevitable opener.
The biggest frustration was the ease with which it came about. Williams broke through the middle of the pitch, where the Gulls had left a huge gap and when the ball was fed to Smalley, he took a quick touch before slotting nonchalantly past Poke.
It was the nightmare start United had to avoid and Hargreaves would now surely learn a valuable lesson about the character within his newly-acquired dressing room. The immediate answer was more possession for the home side and Jayden Stockley was looking horribly isolated as the main striker for the Gulls.
Gradually, slowly, United gained a semblance of momentum with a couple of set-pieces in the swirling wind but the final corner from Kevin Nicholson was volleyed way over by Aaron Downes.
The Gulls stayed on the front-foot with a dipping free-kick by Nicholson and Oxford ‘keeper Ryan Clarke spilled the shot, with Joss Labadie lunging for the rebound but the home custodian made amends with a fine follow-up block.
Fierce wind and rain had become the central features as the game approached the half-hour mark, but United were still able to construct some decent passing moves, although credit to Oxford’s work-rate for preventing any real sniff of goal.
At the other end, Constable spurned a glorious chance to double the lead after a looped header from Krystian Pearce fell to the big striker in the box, as Poke swiftly narrowed the angles to produce an excellent save.
The game was plodding toward the interval with both sides seemingly content for a chance to refresh and work out their strategy after half-time, although Labadie was getting a bit hot under the collar following some robust challenges by the home midfield.
Before the tea was served, however, Elliot Benyon turned sharply for a low shot that Clarke did well to push wide. Labadie then completed the opening 45 minutes with a wayward shot from distance.
Oxford had the wind in their backs for the second period and Poke was soon struggling to clear the halfway line in the stiff breeze, but the home team had the problem of through balls racing away from the intended recipient.
United were trying to inject some tempo in attacking areas and a slick pass from Karl Hawley to Lee Mansell was immediately swept inside for Benyon, who was only denied the equaliser by a superb challenge from Johnny Mullins.
The home side then broke forward on the counter that Labadie halted with a decent tackle, which led to an exchange of handbags between the two sides, all quickly tidied up by referee Carl Berry.
United headed to the final quarter of the match with their deficit still just one goal but the Gulls required a marvellous clearance from Anthony O’Connor to deny Smalley his second of the afternoon. Smalley then nodded just wide from a David Hunt cross.
The first two changes of the afternoon arrived 20 minutes from time, with Jordan Chapell replacing Hawley for United and Rigg came off the Oxford bench for Josh Ruffles.
A decent volley from Wroe had Poke checking his angles soon after the substitutions but it was now imperative the action travelled to the other end, a fact emphasised by United working tirelessly to regain, and retain, possession.
United had a flirt with the Oxford goal when Chapell broke down the right but Benyon was unable to control the cross in what would be his final act of the day, as he was replaced by debutant Shamir Goodwin.
Time was running out fast for the Gulls and the home side was doing a terrific job of keeping their visitors at arm’s length in a game lacking in real chances for both teams.
Billy Bodin replaced Lathrope for the final five minutes and he helped win a free-kick for Nicholson, who dipped a delightful shot over the wall and on to the bar, with Jake Wright bravely heading the rebound over his own bar and suffering a nasty injury in the process.
Despite the added time on top of added time, United were unable to find that elusive equaliser and Burton’s visit to Plainmoor on Tuesday night is now an even bigger match.
Oxford [4-4-2]: 1 Ryan Clarke; 13 David Hunt, 6 Jake Wright [capt] [4 Michael Raynes 90], 19 Johnny Mullins, 3 Tom Newey; 15 Ryan Williams, 22 Nicky Wroe, 37 Josh Ruffles [7 Sean Rigg 72], 17 Danny Rose; 9 James Constable, 10 Deane Smalley. Substitutes [not used]: 18 Scott Davies, 20 Tyrone Marsh, 23 Jonathan Henly [GK], 30 Sam Long, 34 Matt Bevans.
Booked: Rose 69
United [4-3-3]: 1 Michael Poke; 29 Anthony O’Connor, 5 Krystian Pearce, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 7 Lee Mansell [capt], 6 Damon Lathrope [10 Billy Bodin 86], 18 Joss Labadie; 9 Karl Hawley [12 Jordan Chapell 72], 19 Jayden Stockley, 26 Elliot Benyon [17 Shamir Goodwin 81]. Substitutes [not used]: 2 Dale Tonge, 11 Courtney Cameron, 13 Martin Rice [GK], 16 Shaun Cooper.
Booked: Benyon 59, Downes 73, Labadie 75
Referee: Carl Berry
Attendance: 4,744 [322 away]