Oxford United 0
by Rick Cowdery
IF, in the final analysis of 2014-25, Argyle fail by a point or two to reach their season’s objective, the goal at the open end of the Kassam Stadium will have played a significant part.
In a game of few opportunities, the frame of that goal denied the Pilgrims from sneaking away from Oxford with all three points – not once, but twice, within a matter of seconds.
The highlight of a match hallmarked by safety-first, disciplined shape and watertight defences came just before half-time, when Reuben Reid’s header hit both crossbar and post, bouncing perilously close too – maybe even on – the goal-line, but not over it.
So the Pilgrims had to be content with a point – and every member of the Green Army knows what one of those is – as they continue to yo-yo into and out of the top seven as the season dwindles to its conclusion.
Injury concerns about centre-back Carl McHugh and left wing-back Tareiq Holmes-Dennis had cleared up enough for manager John Sheridan to be able to name a side unchanged from the one that had started the 2-0 Home Park defeat of Northampton Town 2-0 seven days previously.
Holmes-Dennis, who is on loan to Argyle from Championship side Charlton Athletic for the remainder of the season, thus lined up against the club with which he had spent the first half of 2014-15 and completed a full set of having played for and against both of the afternoon’s combatants within three months.
The only change to the Argyle squad was on the substitutes’ bench, where Olly Lee was included after completing his temporary move – until the end of the season – from Birmingham City. Lee Cox, who had lined up alongside Lee in a Final Third League Development Cup game on Tuesday, gave way after suffering a groin strain in the 3-1 win over Bristol City.
Oxford made one side that had secured a fine 1-0 away win against Argyle’s play-off rivals Bury a week earlier but it was a potentially significant one with Danny Hylton, their top scorer – by some distance – having to sit out proceedings after collecting his tenth booking of the season at Gigg Lane.
Callum O’Dowda stepped into his boots in a Us line-up that included former Pilgrim Alex MacDonald, who played 35 games across two loan spells at Home Park in 2012 and who had already scored against Argyle this season in a 1-1 draw at Burton Albion, having moved to Oxford from the Pirelli Stadium in the January transfer window.
On a pitch, large parts of which made Stevenage Borough’s divot-strewn surface seem a velvet bedspread by comparison, Argyle took a little time to settle into their stride, by which time they might have been a goal down had not Patrick Hoban somehow managed to turn a wayward shot from Joe Ruffles over Luke McCormick’s crossbar when hitting the target seemed the easier option.
There were few subsequent immediate alarms for McCormick, who had re-started his league career at the Kassam prior to rejoining Argyle, or his defenders, although his opposite number, Ryan Clarke, was similarly unfussed. Waving a Drew Talbot shot over his crossbar was his most exacting task during a cat-and-mouse first half-hour’s play.
Talbot, who has add both guts and guile to the Argyle midfield since his arrival from Chesterfield on loan, caused Clarke greater alarm ten minutes before half-time when he nipped the ball off Kemar Roofe and strode forward before uncoiling a ripper that only just cleared the goal.
That seemed to be the nearest either side was going to get to sweetening the stalemate in the opening 45 minutes until Argyle nearly nicked the lead at the very end of the half.
Reuben Reid, who, moments earlier, had been spoken to by referee Michael Bull after he took exception to MacDonald’s attentions, leapt well to get his head on Kelvin Mellor’s right-wing cross and turn the ball goalwards. His effort beat Clarke’s grasp but the ball hit the underside of the crossbar and bounced up against the post before bobbling away to safety.
The second period continued in as attritional fashion as the first, with clean opportunities non-existent. MacDonald’s curler from a too-acute angle virtually on the left byline looked momentarily problematic, but ultimately drifted harmlessly wide.
Sheridan freshened things up midway through the half, introducing Lee – for his first game since he was sent off in the Devon Expressway Derby win at Exeter, and Jason Banton, a double scorer in the Pilgrims’ midweek development game, for Bobby Reid and Lewi Alessandra.
There followed a first shot on target for the Pilgrims, from Reuben Reid, which Clarke easily pouched, before last card Ryan Brunt was played from the bench.
Nothing, though, could break a game which had never looked anything other than utterly deadlocked.
Oxford United (4-4-2): 1 Ryan Clarke; 12 George Baldock, 5 Johnny Mullins, 6 Jake Wright, 3 Joe Skarz; 11 Alex MacDonald (20 Giorgio Rasulo 88), 19 Michael Collins, 14 Joe Ruffles, 29 Kemar Roofe; 15 Callum O'Dowda (31 James Roberts 72), 9 Patrick Hoban (25 Armand Gnanduillet 88). Substitutes (not used): 7 Daniel Rose, 18 Jamie Ashdown (gk), 22 Sam Long,, 33 Chey Dunkley.
Booking: Roofe 90.
Argyle (3-5-2): 23 Luke McCormick; 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 16 Carl McHugh, 29 Peter Hartley; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 27 Drew Talbot, 17 Bobby Reid (21 Olly Lee 67), 19 Anthony O'Connor, 13 Tareiq Holmes-Dennis; 7 Lewis Alessandra (8 Jason Banton 67), 9 Reuben Reid (28 Ryan Brunt 81). Substitutes (not used): 1 James Bittner (gk), 3 Ben Purrington, 11 Dom Blizzard, 14 Tyler Harvey.
Referee: Michael Bull.
Attendance: 8,057 (1,290 away).