Oxford United 1
by RICK COWDERY
ARGYLE fell to defeat for the first time under John Sheridan’s management as Oxford inflicted a second league defeat of the season on the Pilgrims to go alongside their Johnstone’s Paint Trophy success at Home Park.
James Constable’s goal early in a first-half of a match which witnessed few highlights proved enough to bring Sheridan’s eye-catching four-game unbeaten run to an end.
The manager has said often enough that he has felt his new charges had not played well in that quartet of games, and he will have seen little to change his mind.
He will also again have been unable to find too much fault with their effort. On this occasion, it was not enough.
Sheridan had made one change to the starting line-up that took three points from the previous Saturday’s 2-1 basement battle at Aldershot as he tweaked that defensive 4-5-1 formation into a forward-looking 4-4-2.
He called up striker Gozie Ugwu for a full debut of his injury-spoiled loan spell from Reading, dropping defensive midfielder Paul Wotton – who made his Argyle debut when Ugwu was barely a toddler – to the bench.
There was also a home debut for on-loan midfielder Lee Cox, who had an impressive 14-game similarly temporary spell with Oxford earlier in the season.
For United, goalkeeper Luke McCormick made a poignant return to the scene of past glories, but there was no place in the squad for another ex-Pilgrim, Tony Capaldi.
Neither, on FA Cup weekend, was there room for Alfie Potter, a former hero of that competition five years ago. Overnight illness claimed both players and meant Oxford could name only six substitutes.
In his stead, Josh Parker was promoted into the initial 11, as was, after injury, striker Tom Craddock, bumping Deane Smalley to the substitutes’ bench.
After an opening 15 minutes with redefined ‘inauspicious’, Oxford took the lead when Constable tapped the ball home from three yards.
His task had been made easy by the low, driven right-wing cross into the area from Damian Batt, who had profited from Onismor Bhasera’s over commitment in attempting to rob Parker of the ball and leaving Batt in the open when that decision backfired.
Argyle continued to struggle to gain a toe-hold in the game and were obliged to stay alert at the back, most notably when Cole had to get his body behind Sean Rigg’s low free-kick after Guy Branston had crashed into Constable on the edge of the penalty area.
Bhasera utterly redeemed himself when, despite being the lone defender in a three-on-one Oxford breakaway, he athletically managed to deflect Constable’s cross away from the two United players totally in the clear in the Pilgrims’ penalty area.
Argyle left it until the final ten minutes of the half to threaten McCormick’s goal for the first time, with Ugwu getting toes on Jason Banton’s precise delivery when a boot would, at worst, have tested the goalkeeper’s reflexes.
Banton injected some further urgency into the home side’s strivings, shaking off his marker before shooting. McCormick stopped the ball, but it squirmed from his control and Oxford defender Michael Raynes bundled the loose wide, about 90% inadvertently.
After an indifferent first-half display, Argyle would have been grateful to reach the interval without having suffered further damage, especially when Constable shot wide after another ominous Oxford counterattack.
The Pilgrims started the second half, attacking the FES Devonport End with a real purpose.
Ugwu held off the attentions of Oxford captain Jake Wright before shooting into the side-netting, and Banton’s spicy free-kick clattered off the yellow defensive wall.
All the good intent was nearly undone, however, when Durrell Berry’s sloppy backpass from wide on the right put Craddock clean through on goal with only Cole to beat.
That the Argyle custodian not only managed to get a hand on the ball as Constable attempted to take it around him, but also avoided fouling him was nothing short of first-class goalkeeping.
The Pilgrims renewed their efforts and Reuben Reid was twice denied by Wright, who headed a lopping shot wide before throwing his body in the way of a second attempt.
Sheridan sent on Ronan Murray for Ugwu, juggling his forward options by pushing Paris Cowan-Hall into the van, and Cowan-Hall soon teed up Reid only for the Argyle striker to be prevented from teeing off by Lewis Montrose’s excellent tackle.
There followed a comedy moment when Branston’s clearance dropped on the top of his own net, bounced back into play, and ended up in the Argyle net.
Initially, a goal was awarded, before, following long protests and a discussion between officials – at least one of who had seen something that had not happened – the correct decision of a corner was arrived at.
At least if the goal had been allowed, Argyle could have felt a sense of injustice at the result, instead of just frustration.
1 Jake Cole; 2 Durrell Berry, 26 Anthony Charles, 5 Guy Branston, 14 Onismor Bhasera; 7 Paris Cowan-Hall, 6 Conor Hourihane (capt), 10 Lee Cox, 19 Jason Banton; 24 Reuben Reid, 18 Gozie Ugwu (28 Ronan Murray 69). Substitutes (not used):
4 Maxime Blanchard, 8 Luke Young, 13 Ollie Chenoweth (gk), 15 Paul Wotton, 23 Jamie Richards, 27 Andres Gurrieri.
Oxford United (4-4-2):
24 Luke McCormick; 2 Damien Batt, 4 Michael Raynes, 6 Jake Wright (capt), 26 Liam Davis; 25 Josh Parker, 7 Adam Chapman (16 Andrew Whing 89), 19 Lewis Montrose, 14 Sean Rigg (10 Deane Smalley 62), 9 James Constable, 29 Tom Craddock (23 Luke O’Brien 69). Substitutes (not used):
8 Simon Heslop, 22 Harry Worley, 31 Max Crocombe (gk).
7,189 (311 away).