Oxford United 2
Mackie 4, Nelson 74
WHEN times are hard, you need your friends, so there was some irony that Argyle’s latest defeat was inflicted upon them by two popular former Pilgrims.
United’s goals that gave them a win which saw them leapfrog the Pilgrims at the foot of Sky Bet League One came from forward Jamie Mackie, who scored 16 goals – including one just seconds into his debut against Barnsley – in 102 appearances between 2008-2010; and defender Curtis Nelson, whose 246 games between 2010-16 included captaining the Pilgrims at Wembley in his final match.
On a miserable afternoon for the Pilgrims, who never really hit their stride throughout, Yann Songo’o was dismissed late on for a second yellow card, meaning that arguably the Pilgrims most consistently best player this season will miss next week’s home game against Burton Albion.
Argyle went into the game with the same line-up that had paved the way to a 1-0 victory over AFC Wimbledon last Saturday.
Manager Derek Adams had made six changes of personnel for the home midweek Checkatrade Trophy tie against Swindon Town but none of those players retained their starting place at the Kassam Stadium.
Instead, there were recalls for Graham Carey, David Fox, Freddie Ladapo, Matt Macey, Stuart O'Keefe and Yann Songo'o. Niall Canavan, Conor Grant and Jamie Ness, who have all missed recent games through injury, were named among the substitutes.
Oxford were without Northern Ireland international Gavin Whyte, so Marcus Browne came into a side whose 0-0 draw at Southend United seven days previously had arrested a run of three defeats that included home losses to Walsall and Luton Town.
It took less than four minutes for Mackie to give the home side the lead. James Henry’s thrust down the right appeared to have been dealt with by the Argyle defence, but Mackie picked Ryan Edwards’ pocket with typical opportunism and poked the ball across Macey’s despairing dive.
It was a rare shot on target for either side in a first half where nerves were more evident that technique.
That is not to say that the Pilgrims did not have their chances to go into half-time on level terms. Playing with a swirling wind blowing in from the open end at the Kassam, they ended the first 45 minutes on the up, with decent chances falling to O’Keefe and Ladapo.
The former scooped a shot over the crossbar, after being played in by the latter, when any shot on target would have surely resulted in a goal; Ladapo then pulled a good save out of recalled Oxford goalkeeper Simon Eastwood before, not for the first time this season, the half-time whistle interrupted some Pilgrims’ momentum.
For their part, Oxford seldom looked seriously like adding to their lead, with their quick counter-attacks realising nothing but promise. The closest they came from those breaks was when Ricky Holmes connected with a cross from Marcus Browne that he could not direct on target.
Otherwise, Macey made one save of note in the first half, getting down to keep out a header by Rob Dickie following a typically dangerous free-kick delivery by Tony McMahon.
Holmes was seldom away from the centre of the action and twice in quick succession clashed with Ashley Smith-Brown, who enjoyed an unhappy loan spell at the Kassam last season. The former Manchester City man was yellow carded for the first coming-together and spoken to for the second by referee Andy Woolmer, who had clearly initially waved away Oxford appeals to even award a foul.
After a brief foray into opposition territory in the opening stages of the second half, Argyle had to face more Oxford pressure. Henry nearly deceived Macey with a wind-affected cross that turned into a shot on its way to goal; Mackie headed over following the resultant corner; and McMahon crashed the ball high and wide after another counter.
The home side came closer still when Brannagan sent in a shot that an Argyle stud deflected for a corner, but the Pilgrims dug in and Smith-Brown’s unhappy return to the Kassam Stadium was relieved when Gregg Wylde replaced him with 20 minutes to go.
Argyle reached deeper still when Macey tipped a drive by Henry around his post on the stretch but Oxford would not be denied and Nelson, set up by Mackie, doubled United’s lead with a close-range conversion.
Argyle immediately sent on Joel Grant for an out-of-sorts Edwards, with Songo’o dropping back into central defence.
He did not last long in that role, though, receiving a second yellow card for fouling Mackie, and with him went any lingering hope that the Pilgrims had of hauling themselves back into the game.
Oxford United (4-3-3): 1 Simon Eastwood; 29 Tony McMahon, 5 Curtis Nelson, 4 Robert Dickie, 14 Josh Ruffels; 8 Cameron Brannagan (11 Samir Carruthers 87), 15 John Mousinho (capt), 17 James Henry; 10 Marcus Browne (26 Shandon Baptiste 63), 19 Jamie Mackie (9 Sam Smith 87), 12 Ricky Holmes. Substitutes (not used): 6 Jamie Hanson, 20 Jon Obika, 23 Sam Long, 41 Jonathan Mitchell (gk).
Booked: Brannagan 30, Ackie 81.
Argyle (4-3-3): 1 Matt Macey; 22 Tafari Moore, 5 Ryan Edwards (16 Joel Grant 75), 24 Peter Grant, 23 Ashley Smith-Brown (20 Gregg Wylde 69); 4 Yann Songo’o, 8 David Fox (capt), 13 Stuart O’Keefe; 10 Graham Carey, 19 Freddie Ladapo, 11 Ruben Lameiras (14 Niall Canavan 83). Substitutes (not used): 6 Jamie Ness, 15 Conor Grant, 21 Kyle Letheren (gk), 29 Alex Fletcher.
Sent off: Songo’o 81.
Booked: Songo’o 26, Smith-Brown 43, O’Keefe 80.
Referee: Andy Woolmer.
Attendance: 7,332 (1,285 away).