Batt pen 54
IT is very difficult to find the right words to describe a painful capitulation from United.
The pre-match omens were better than they had been for weeks and the start was positive, but from 30 minutes onwards, the Gulls simply watched Oxford waltz away with the three points.
James Constable twice got the better of Aaron Downes. First, to score himself on 50 minutes and then win a penalty a penalty from the Australian four minutes later, duly converted by Damien Batt.
Downes did quickly pull one back but the fact was United did not deserve anything from a tough afternoon, and Simon Heslop completed a 3-1 loss with the final kick of the game.
United manager Alan Knill made two changes from the side that battled to a 0-0 draw at Accrington last weekend. New signing Joss Labadie replaced Damon Lathrope in midfield and Downes completed his recovery from a hamstring problem to come in for Angus MacDonald at the back.
On the bench, Daniel Leadbitter and Niall Thompson dropped out of the squad, with Lloyd Macklin and Nathan Craig the preferred options.
Oxford boss Chris Wilder was understandably more ruthless in his team selection after the 4-0 home loss to Rotherham in midweek, with Michael Duberry, Heslop, Liam Davis and Deane Smalley all sacrificed.
Luke O’Brien was added to the defence, Tony Capaldi and Scot Davies came into the midfield and the giant frame of Constable was preferred as a strike-partner for the in-form Alfie Potter.
The improved mood and confidence around Plainmoor over the past week was evident in the opening exchanges, as the Gulls strung together a couple of neat passing moves on the slick surface, with Billy Bodin looking particularly sharp on the left-wing.
Labadie introduced himself to the Yellow Army with some tidy work in midfield before picking up a pass inside from Ryan Jarvis and attempting a speculative 30-yard shot that arrowed wide of Luke McCormick’s far post.
Wilder was then forced into an early change, as Capaldi was substituted with a back injury. Josh Parker came on to fill the right-wing position, nudging Davies inside to join Andrew Whing in the engine room.
Oxford had their first sniff at goal on 11 minutes but Michael Raynes’ header from a Davies corner drifted well wide. United responded with a Kevin Nicholson free-kick finding the head of Brian Saah, but the big defender nodded straight at the waiting McCormick.
There was a pleasing rhythm to much of United’s build-up play but the final ball was just missing its target. One particular move involved Lee Mansell and Rene Howe, but the captain was unable to bustle his way past the last Oxford defender to have a shot on goal.
Goalkeeper Michael Poke tried to solve the problem with a raking ball forward to Bodin on the half-hour. The pass just evaded United’s lively winger but the atmosphere and optimism inside Plainmoor was clearly feeding down to the players.
A game that was simmering along boiled over on 32 minutes, when Downes and Saah misjudged a bouncing ball to allow Constable a clear run on goal. Thankfully, however, Poke stood up manfully to the point-blank drive and diverted the ball over for a magnificent save.
All of a sudden, Oxford were controlling possession and territory. Potter was the man to profit, clipping a pass into space for Constable, who was once again thwarted by the excellence of Poke in quickly narrowing the angle for a crucial block.
The Gulls were now being caught out with disturbing regularity, and Potter was next to find space in behind. United were left very grateful for a wasteful finish from the left-channel but there was no doubt the defensive concentration had to improve.
At the other end, Bodin had switched to the right and his clever pass inside allowed Jarvis and Howe to bamboozle the U’s with a quick one-two, but McCormick was off his line to save the final shot from Jarvis.
Half-time arrived with the clear message that United would need to rediscover their sparkle from the first 30 minutes if the essential three points were to stay inside TQ1.
The boys in Yellow were not listening.
The pivotal goal started with a sloppy pass from Joe Oastler and then Downes was muscled off the ball by Constable, who rounded Poke with ease and slotted the ball into a gaping net.
If the opener was a defensive disaster, the second was even worse. A long ball over the top should have caused no difficulty but Constable again outwitted Downes, and the Australian stuck out a leg for a soft penalty.
Batt slammed the spot-kick into the bottom corner and the desperate nature of United’s predicament took a turn for the worse.
Labadie made a valiant attempt to lift the gloom with a whipped free-kick that McCormick could only turn over at full stretch and the subsequent corner from Mansell was met by Downes, whose header bounced into the turf before finding the far corner.
Hope restored, Bodin then found a pocket of space in the box after a long ball from Saah, and the young Welshman picked out the run of Mansell, but the skipper’s shot was deflected clear by an Oxford leg.
Knill turned to Lloyd Macklin for the final quarter, removing Jarvis from the right flank but the momentum had disappeared as quickly as it had been found. It was difficult not to start looking at the descending fog and hoping for a weather-based miracle.
Wilder introduced Smalley for Potter on 73 minutes, but it was still Constable causing strife for the Yellows, as he again got the wrong side of his man to spear a low shot inches past the post. The next Oxford attack saw Parker rifle over from a whipped corner.
United were left waiting for a final chance of salvation and it came from a deep cross by Oastler. Howe was the recipient at the far post but his poked effort was snaffled by McCormick. Saah then lashed a left-footer narrowly wide moments later.
Both managers made another change in the dying seconds, Knill withdrawing Labadie for Danny Stevens and Oxford brought on Heslop for Davies. To sum up another dark day at Plainmoor, Heslop somehow found the time to smash in a third for the visitors.
Ten games to go and no time to feel sorry for ourselves. A positive result at Dagenham on Tuesday is a must.
Gulls [4-4-2]: 1 Michael Poke; 2 Joe Oastler, 5 Brian Saah, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 8 Ryan Jarvis [14 Lloyd Macklin 66], 24 Joss Labadie [19 Danny Stevens 90], 7 Lee Mansell [capt], 15 Billy Bodin; 26 Elliot Benyon, 9 Rene Howe. Substitutes [not used]: 6 Damon Lathrope, 13 Martin Rice [GK], 16 Angus MacDonald, 20 Nathan Craig, 21 Thomas Cruise.
Booked: Howe 62
Oxford [4-4-2]: 24 Luke McCormick; 2 Damien Batt, 4 Michael Raynes, 6 Jake Wright [capt], 23 Luke O’Brien; 27 Scott Davies [8 Simon Heslop 90], 16 Andrew Whing, 17 Tony Capaldi [25 Josh Parker 8], 14 Sean Rigg [10 Deane Smalley 73]; 15 Alfie Potter, 9 James Constable. Substitutes [not used]: 5 Michael Duberry, 22 Harry Worley, 29 Tom Craddock, 31 Max Crocombe [GK].
Booked: Whing 72
Referee: Stephen Martin
Attendance: 2,504 [379 away].