Nelson 15, Tanner 75
Hartley og 12, Roofe 35
by Rob McNichol
THE two teams chasing league leaders Northampton scored two goals a piece in an exciting encounter at Home Park.
Oxford United came to Devon on the back of a three-match winning run, and having won their last five away games, and took a lead after Peter Hartley's unfortunate own-goal. Argyle, via their captain Curtis Nelson, equalised within three minutes, before Oxford went into the break in front thanks to Kemar Roofe's 21st goal of the season.
Half-time substitute Craig Tanner, about five foot eight in his stockinged feet, rose to meet a right-wing corner and head home to give the Pilgrims a hard-earned point.
Both sides set out to win the match and claim three points but - whisper it - both would probably have taken the 2-2 draw before play began.
Around two years, two months and two weeks after he made his surprise Argyle debut - against Oxford, coincidentally - Ben Purrington was brought into the Argyle line-up for his first league start of the season. The 19-year-old had made eight substitute appearances, and one start, against Exeter in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, in all competitions this season. Manager Derek Adams had foreshadowed Purrington's inclusion, talking him up in a pre-match press conference, and stating he saw Ben being able to play at left-back, left-midfield or central midfield.
It was in the latter position that he started, alongside Josh Simpson, with Carl McHugh and Oscar Threlkeld ruled out because of injury. Tyler Harvey, another possible alternative, was back on the bench after several weeks absence through injury. He was joined by 16-year-old defender Jordan Bentley, a first-year apprentice, and brother of former Pilgrim Aaron.
With second place visiting third place in Sky Bet League 2 - the teams only separated by Oxford's superior goal difference - it was no surprise that the opening ten minutes essentially saw a feeling out process taking place. Eventually, Argyle won a corner on then left after Gregg Wylde's spadework.
Jake Jervis' delivery found Hartley, who flicked goalwards, only to see the effort blocked. As the ball came back into the area, Hartley prodded twice more towards goal, but each time it was kept out. Another corner ensued, from which Hartley headed just over.
Sadly for Hartley, his flurry of activity was not over.
At the other end, Oxford won a corner of their own, and Chris Maguire swung the ball deep to the far post from the left. Hartley met the ball, but contrived to kick the ball into his own chest, and watched as it looped into his own net.
Argyle, stung, gained a measure of revenge for their unfortunate number six by equalising within three minutes. Another corner, again on the left side, was whipped in by Jervis, and Nelson, unmarked, powered a header beyond Sam Slocombe.
There was a feeling before the game that two attacking sides with promotion credentials could play out a cracking encounter, and after two early goals, there were no signs that those feelings were misplaced. Oxford frequently looked dangerous, particularly through an attacking trio of Kemar Roofe, Danny Hylton and Jordan Bowery, but it was Argyle that carved out the next chance, when Wylde raced beyond United's backline and received a pass from Reuben Reid. Wylde bore down on Slocombe, who made an excellent save when the Scottish winger pulled the trigger.
Nelson went close again from a Carey free-kick to the far post, while at the other end full-backs Kelvin Mellor and Gary Sawyer made notable interventions as Oxford prowled.
As Argyle pushed on down the right to try to open Oxford up again, the visitors picked their spot to break away. Mellor's ball towards Carey was intercepted, and Oxford quickly looked to exploit space vacated by the overlapping Mellor. Bowery cut inside and teed up Roofe, who faded one away from McCormick from the edge of the penalty area.
Bowery was Oxford's livewire, and he went close to hurting the Pilgrims further when a partially-cleared corner was knocked back in, and whistled one just over after the ball had sat up beautifully for him.
Seconds after the fourth official had signaled the two minutes of injury time, Roofe got to the bye-line and cut back for Hylton, who missed the ball entirely. The loose ball fell to right-back JonJoe Kenny, who fired a low shot just wide.
The indicated two minutes of added time turned into four as, in the last thing Argyle could have done with, Hartley fell to the ground having challenged aerially. It took the Argyle defender a long time to limp from the field as the half-time whistle sounded.
Hartley did not reappear for the second half, instead being replaced by Craig Tanner. In a hefty reshuffle, Purrington moved to left-back; Sawyer shifted into Hartley's central defence position; Graham Carey dropped into a deeper midfield role; and Tanner came on to play just off of Reid.
It was not the only half-time change. Brett Huxtable replaced James Adcock for the third team - the officials. The initial referee had pulled a calf in the first period.
As in the first half, both teams set out to attack. Sawyer had to make an outstanding retreating tackle as Bowery looked set to shoot, before Reid thumped a header onto the crossbar from Jervis' cross. His follow up shot was blocked by Kenny and went out for a corner. From said corner, the ball found Tanner at the far post, but would not sit for him, and the chance was gone.
Oxford were not interested in simply protecting their single-goal lead, and continued to commit bodies forward. It often took some well-timed interventions from Argyle defenders to prevent clear shots on goal. When one did come - Maguire found space at the far post - he headed straight at McCormick.
The visitors looked confident, and when Hylton breezed through one-on-one with McCormick he looked set to put Oxford beyond catching. Nelson, though, leaving scorchmarks on the Home Park turf it could scarcely do with, drew alongside Hylton, picked his pocket and alleviated the danger.
Within two minutes, Argyle were level. A Wylde burst got Argyle up the field, and Jervis won a corner on the right. Carey's delivery found the crowded six-yard box, where Tanner headed into the left-hand corner.
From the first minute both teams had come to win the game, and matters did not change as the game, now level, drew to its conclusion. The visitors looked to have cracked it when Oxford substitute Callum O'Dowda dinked a ball back from the goal-line into the centre of the area and found Hylton. It was Nelson again with the important action, being close enough to Hylton to force the shot onto the bar and over.
At the other Tanner's dancing feet provided a little bit of magic, and there was nearly the perfect story as his reverse pass found Purrington, but he could not control it and the chance dissipated.
Only two minutes of stoppage time were signaled at the end, and in truth both sides seemed content to see the game and take their point.
So, onto Accrington, the team most likely, if any, to catch Argyle or Oxford. Stanley drew 0-0 and had their goalkeeper sent off. Could next week get any bigger? We cannot wait.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 6 Peter Hartley (27 Craig Tanner half-time), 3 Gary Sawyer; 8 Josh Simpson, 16 Ben Purrington; 14 Jake Jervis, 10 Graham Carey, 11 Gregg Wylde; 9 Reuben Reid (7 Daniel Nardiello 90). Substitutes (not used): 15 Tyler Harvey, 21 James Bittner (gk), 24 Louis Rooney, 29 Jordan Bentley.
Oxford (4-4-2): 1 Sam Slocombe; 16 Jonjoe Kenny, 5 Johnny Mullins (capt), 33 Chey Dunkley, 36 Jordan Evans; 4 Kemar Roofe (15 Callum O'Dowda 70), 8 Liam Sercombe, 14 Josh Ruffels, 28 Chris Maguire (7 George Waring 81) ; 10 Danny Hylton, 29 Jordan Bowery. Substitutes (not used): 3 Joe Skarz, 11 Alex MacDonald, 18 John Lundstram, 24 Josh Ashby, 34 Josh Stevens (gk).
Referee: James Adcock (Brett Huxtable half-time).
Attendance: 10,019 (1,179 away).