Points-free Easter Programme Proves One To Pass Over
County's holiday schedule of matches against promotion-chasing teams ended with a second consecutive defeat by the odd goal, as Oxford City also became the third side in successive completed matches to achieve a 'double' over the Hatters.
Having lost the services of both Kyle Jacobs and Greg Wilkinson to injury during the Good Friday reverse at Barrow three days earlier, Alan Lord opted to start Kristian Dennis on the right side of midfield and as part of a 4-1-3-2 formation. Bobby Lofthouse and Jack Ryan, meanwhile, were selected to replace Jacobs and Wilkinson.
The County bench included Jordan Fagbola and Connor Hancock, who had recovered from injuries of their own, and Danny Glover, following his eventual completion at Barrow of a one-match ban that had been deferred in the light of the preceding Hyde fixture's abandonment.
Oxford, for their part, boasted by far and away the most continental of Conference North line-ups - featuring four Spaniards (goalkeeper, Salva de la Cruz and Captain, Jose Lapoujade, together with Ander del Alamo and Adrian Santiago) and two French players (Mamadou Fofana and Jeremy Balmy). Tanzanian-born leading scorer, Adi Yussuf, whose brace had undone County in the corresponding fixture at Marsh Lane six months previously, was also named to start, while the visitors even enjoyed the unlikely luxury of being able to include a Brazilian (Felipe Barcelos) among their substitutes!
More ominously still, the team from the City of Dreaming Spires arrived at Edgeley Park on the back of a free-scoring record away from home that had seen them net just two shy of fifty goals in the current campaign. The visiting players were clearly feeling far from dozy at kick-off time in SK3, too, as they immediately set about taking the game to County - with Tom Winters showing an initial declaration of his side's attacking intent, as he held off Matthew Todd on the left flank before firing wide.
Scott Spencer carved out an early opportunity for the Hatters that led to his low drive at a diving de la Cruz from the edge of the Oxford area - but, for the most part, the first half was to see City quickest to the ball, dominant in possession and enjoying the lion's share of chances. Lee Henderson, from the game's first corner, clipped the County bar with a header, before Danny Hurst was called into action - first cutting out a dangerous Lapoujade delivery from the left, and subsequently executing a brilliant one-handed parry to deny Winters from close range.
Winters continued to make life uncomfortable for the Hatters - both from the left side, and in front, of goal. His next cross found Yussuf, who headed wide of the far post, before the winger himself got behind the County defence - only to shoot tamely at a grateful Hurst.
A goal for Oxford looked on the cards, and, seven minutes before half-time, it duly arrived - albeit from the right flank, where Luke Coulson took advantage of a slip by Stephen O'Halloran. Coulson proceeded to square the ball, via Winters, to Yussuf who fired home from ten yards.
Having conceded, County did appear jolted into action - and Dennis was soon to fire a shot wide following good work on the right by Spencer. As the break approached, the Hatters also earned their first corner of the afternoon... although were still half a dozen behind their guests on that count.
It may have been a one-sided half, but, against the odds, County were to go in at the break back on level terms. During the single minute of added time, the ball fell to Chris Churchman on the edge of the box, and Churchman - never one to go in for short-range attempts on goal - rifled it into the left corner of Oxford's net from twenty yards.
HALF-TIME: County 1 (Churchman, 45 + 1), Oxford City 1 (Yussuf, 38).
As any pundit would declare as part of a half-time analysis, it had been a good time to score. And the Hatters appeared positively revitalized on taking to the field, in a 4-3-3 formation, after the break.
Ryan was first to lead the charge, as he beat Oxford's offside trap - but he over-ran before giving himself an opportunity to shoot. In the immediate aftermath, a chance fell further out to Spencer, whose effort was palmed behind by de la Cruz. Another County break saw the visiting 'keeper just beat Dennis to the ball - while, from the Hatters' second corner of the half, O'Halloran headed narrowly over the Cheadle End bar.
Oxford, for a long spell, were reduced to trying their luck from distance. Marlon Jackson was the chief protagonist - firing, on three separate occasions, straight at Hurst, a generous width of the left post and, finally, above the scoreboard. Fofana was even more audacious, as he looked to emulate Charlie Adam's successful long-range Easter Saturday strike - but the Frenchman's attempt, from just inside the County half, was both too high and too wide.
Spencer went close again for County - cutting in from the left, before shooting narrowly over - whilst, at the other end, Yussuf also unleashed an attempt from the area's edge that Hurst did well to parry. Yussuf had been enduring a quiet second half until this point - and, indeed, was involved a little earlier in a curious episode that saw Oxford's leading marksman talk the visiting management out of substituting him!
All Hatters present suffered a moment of anxiety when the whistle was blown for a challenge by Fagbola on Winters that looked, for all the world, to have taken place inside the County box. The referee's decision was, however, to award a free kick on the edge of the area - and the subsequent delivery from del Alamo was tipped over by Hurst.
With just two minutes of normal time remaining, and a share of the points - following an even second half - looking likely, County were caught napping as Winters crossed from the left for Jackson to stoop and head past Hurst from close range.
As the contest reached its close, such attempts as there were ended up off target - with Spencer firing wide from distance, Coulson blasting over and Oxford substitute, Lewis Wilson, placing two efforts wide.
The bitter pill of conceding late and continuing a now-month-long winless streak was sugared somewhat by an announcement, following the final whistle, that Hurst had signed a contract-extension to the end of the 2015/16 season. Having already been known to save the day for County on the pitch during the current campaign, his part in this development on an otherwise disappointing afternoon saw the highly-rated 'keeper do something along the same lines off it.
FULL-TIME: County 1 (Churchman, 45 + 1), Oxford City 2 (Yussuf, 38; Jackson, 88).
Team: Hurst, Todd (Fagbola, 46), Duxbury, Churchman, Lees, O'Halloran, Moses, Lofthouse (Glover, 75), Dennis, Spencer, Ryan.
Unused Subs: Ormson, Russell, Hancock.
Booked: Dennis, Glover.
Man of the Match: Duxbury.
Attendance: 2,388 (22 away).
FREE Match video here: https://youtu.be/5Ozfj74lMzI