2 (Hall 66, Trotman og 88)
3 (Lavery 46, Reid pen 81, 87)
By ROB McNICHOL
FIVE goals in a sensational second half at the Kassam Stadium gave Argyle a memorable win over promotion-chasing Oxford United.
United had a five-figure crowd for a fixture they had termed ‘The Big Match’, and after a well-contested but tight first half, Argyle scored within a minute of the restart via Caolan Lavery.
Oxford levelled with a long-range effort Asa Hall, as they began to show why they have made it to the top of the division.
However, Reuben Reid, the match-winner on Saturday against Bury, once again proved the difference. He scored from the spot after Dave Kitson had handled a cross from a free-kick, then followed up a Tope Obadeyi effort with three minutes remaining.
Oxford narrowed Argyle’s lead after Neal Trotman’s own-goal, but Argyle were not to be denied as they clung for their second maximum points haul of the festive period.
The Big News at the Big Match was that Ben Purrington, still some five months shy of his 18th birthday, was to make his first team debut, replacing the suspended Durrell Berry on the left side of defence. The skipper of the youth squad had obviously caught the eye of the management with his performances in the FA Youth Cup and beyond this term, as recognised left-backs Jamie Reckord and Andre Blackman were not even in the matchday squad.
Also into the side was another captain, as Conor Hourihane regained his position in the centre of the Pilgrims’ midfield after serving his own one-match ban. Moving aside for him was Luke Young, who lined up on the bench alongside the returning Tope Obadeyi and new boy Nathan Thomas, recruited on Christmas Eve.
Prior to kick-off, local tenor Laurence Robinson sang classical efforts from composers such as Puccini and Bizet. You know you are in a classy, educated city when the pre-match entertainment is blasting out opera in foreign languages. He was excellent, incidentally.
Last time on the road Argyle had performed admirably against a promotion seeking Chesterfield, but ultimately left with nothing. Eleven days later, John Sheridan’s men had swapped twisted spires for dreaming spires, and hoped to leave the famous university town with first-class honours.
When the game kicked off, Oxford kept the ball for the opening thirty seconds, shifting it around the park with style. That is, until it shifted to their right flank and Purrington made a strong, positive interception to halt United’s opening gambit. Fans of the managerial cliché would have been awaiting the seemingly impending ‘get your first tackle in, son’ rhetoric, but it was a great sign.
Argyle settled quickly. A lengthy spell of possession only six minutes into the game saw passes to baby blue shirts well into double figures, ending only when Andres Gurrieri tested Ryan Clarke from range. Within a couple of minutes, a deflected effort from the Argentine had home fans’ hearts trembling a little before Clarke gathered, then Hourihane fizzed not far over. Despite the theatre of the build-up, it had been the visitors’ attempts at upstaging the occasion that had caught eye after the curtain rose.
The Pilgrims shaded the opening 25 minutes of a lively, high-tempo and pretty high-quality contest, although when David Hunt smashed a direct free-kick from the edge of the penalty area past the wall and past Luke McCormick, it seemed the home side might take the lead. Fortunately, from an Argyle perspective, the powerful drive was just outside the post.
The game was being fiercely contested, but in the right way, one felt. Strong challenges, but not ones that were overstepping the mark. This keen yet fair sense of competition made it all the stranger, therefore, when Gurrieri went into the book after he himself was fouled and Argyle awarded a free-kick.
Like Auntie Mildred trying in vain to cut the turkey on Christmas Day with a butter knife, it was the cutting edge that was lacking from both sides. Twice Lewis Alessandra threaten to get in behind Oxford’s right flank, but first he was undone by some fine defending by the retreating Johnny Mullins, then slipped as he made a cross from wide on the goal-line.
Oxford looked threatening with a clutch of free-kicks which were pumped into the area, but ultimately Argyle heads prevailed, in more than one sense, to quell any danger.
At half-time the razzmatazz continued. Apprentices raced in zorbing balls to win fans a sound system and Laurence Robinson returned for another ear-blasting crowd-rouser, while flames licked into the dimming sky and the home fans waved their yellow flags to get behind their team.
Forty seconds after the restart, Argyle were ahead.
Purrington was involved, pushing Argyle forward down the left, where eventually the ball was pushed into the feet of Lavery. The on-loan Irishman took a couple of touches to get the ball under control and pivot through 90 degrees, then lashed past a stationary Clarke to put Argyle ahead and somewhat puncture the admittedly admirable Big Match jamboree.
Within two minutes, United nearly had their momentum back. A free-kick was worked to the far post where James Constable headed firmly over McCormick and against the underside if the crossbar. The phsyics of how the goalframe was erected gave the impression of a bulging net, but fortunately it had rebounded to the ground in front of the goal-line, sparing Argyle the ignominy of only having led for a short while.
Clearly, Oxford had ascended to the top of their division for a reason. As if scolded by Argyle’s temerity to attempt to bigfoot the party, they begin to play with more purpose and speed, and another chance to equalise went begging when Dave Kitson bizarrely nodded back to his strike partner Constable rather than go for goal himself.
Of course, United’s attacking intent left them a little prone to the counter, and when Blizzard clipped a ball over their defence it seemed Argyle might double their advantage. Reuben Reid collected the well-flighted ball and was set to shoot from point-blank range when a magnificent piece of defending by home captain Jake Wright denied him.
Oxford got their equaliser just prior to the midway point in the half when Argyle cleared to Asa Hall, who scooped a bouncing ball past McCormick from upwards of 25 yards. It seemed a cruel blow to Argyle, but it had taken a rather special strike to get Oxford onto the scoresheet.
Argyle reacted tremendously, and when Alessandra showed a piece of quick-thinking combined with a display of quick feet to send Reid away, a chance looked on the card. As Reid approached the box, he was cynically prevented from advancing any further by David Hunt. Argyle had a free-kick, and Hunt had a nervous wait as he waited to see the colour of the card. The referee selected yellow; it could well have been more severe.
Lavery’s free-kick attempted curled just wide, and shortly afterwards Danny Rose whistled an attempt just over McCormick’s bar as both sides demonstrated their intent to take maximum points.
Argyle were next to nearly step into the lead, as a deep Alessandra centre was nodded square by Neal Trotman, who had come forward for a corner. His centre-back partner Curtis Nelson had followed his venture forward, and got a toe to the ball to flick over the goalkeeper. Regrettably, it fell the wrong side of the post and went out of play.
Argyle once again had regained the upper hand and again demonstrated an ability to retain the ball well. As Oxford pushed them back territorially, Kitson clipped Hourihane to the ground near the halfway line. A day previous it had been Donner and Blitzen – this time it was Conor and Kitson. Argyle again sent bodies forward, and as the Argyle captain launched one into the box, Kitson handled before Trotman could meet it with a header. The assistant waved a flag of a slightly different hue to those being flown in the home stands, and Argyle had a penalty.
Having missed a vital spot-kick at Chesterfield, Reid did not shirk any responsibility, stepping up once again from twelve yards and striking home.
He wasn’t done with the goalscoring. Argyle launched another attack via Alessandra, who released Obadeyi. The substitute danced round several defenders but appeared to have blown the chance when his effort was blocked. It fell, though, to Reid, whose first-time shot may have glanced off of a couple of bodies en route, but it was always destined to find its way over the line.
With three minutes remaining, you may have been forgiven from thinking it was game over. Oxford felt differently, and when Tom Newey’s cross was sliced beyond McCormick by Trotman, it made for a frantic last few minutes. Argyle, though, clung on.
Oh, what fun it is to see....
: 1 Ryan Clarke; 13 David Hunt, 6 Jake Wright (c), 19 Johnny Mullins, 3 Tom Newey; 15 Ryan Williams, 14 Asa Hall, 17 Danny Rose, 7 Sean Rigg (10 Deane Smalley 79); 9 James Constable, 8 David Kitson.
: 4 Michael Raynes, 18 Scott Davies, 20 Tyrone Marsh, 21 Max Crocombe, 30 Sam Long, 37 Josh Ruffels.
: Rigg 66, Hunt 70, Kitson 90
: 23 Luke McCormick; 4 Max Blanchard, 16 Neal Trotman, 17 Curtis Nelson, 25 Ben Purrington; 27 Andres Gurrieri, 11 Dominic Blizzard, 6 Conor Hourihane, 7 Lewis Alessandra; 9 Reuben Reid (5 Guy Branston 90), 13 Caolan Lavery (26 Tope Obadeyi 83).
: 1 Jake Cole, 8 Rommy Boco, 14 Luke Young, 15 Paul Wotton, 19 Nathan Thomas.
: Gurrieri 33, Purrington 59, Blanchard 64, Lavery 72
: 10,049 (699 away)