Yet more disappointment for United fans in what is becoming a hugely underwhelming season. This time, we were held by basement side Barnet and George Elek was on-hand to report.
There was a certainly a sense of looming despair walking down from High Barnet Underground Station towards Underhill last night as the driving rain, swirling wind and icy cold conditions meant there was no reason to predict the evening ahead to be a pleasant one. Just a couple of weeks ago at the same stadium United played Barnet off the park in the FA cup, dispatching them 2-0 as James Constable and Sean Rigg’s strikes put the Yellows in the Second Round pot. Edgar Davids offered United high praise and it seemed we had turned a corner. Well, apparently the corner led to a dead end.
United fielded two changes, one forced due to the suspended Lee Cox whilst Jake Forster-Caskey made way after a lacklustre performance on Saturday. Sean Rigg returned to his rightful position on the left wing whilst Adam Chapman’s return meant that Simon Heslop was awkwardly shifted out to the right wing yet again. Chris Wilder is certainly loyal to his formations; after finally reverting to 4-4-2 he is not about to show any flexibility. Potter started up top with Beano for the second game in a row as the back 5 were unchanged as well.
The game started brightly – for Barnet. Just four minutes were on the clock when the hosts’ corner met a totally unchallenged header at the near post from Hyde which looped over Clarke’s head into the back of the net. The defenders looked at each other open mouthed trying to fathom how a player could find such space in their box. It wouldn’t be the only time in the evening. So United were one down in the first five minutes, how would we react?
Brilliantly. From the kick-off we won a throw-in down by the left hand corner flag. Tony Capaldi slung one of his catapults into the six-yard box causing havoc amongst the Barnet defence. Beano did a fantastic job keeping the ball in play when it seemed cleared and nodded it down to Sean Rigg to fire home from eight yards. A good strike and exactly the reaction we needed. Now was the time to push on and get another.
But it was the hosts who pressed on, often getting to the by-line and putting in some dangerous crosses. In the swirling wind both Mullins and Wright were doing a great job winning their headers, but it was on the deck where Barnet were getting their joy. Their pressure told and just before the half hour a carbon copy corner was headed at goal at the near post by Hyde again. This time it was straight at Clarke who very nearly dropped it over the line. With many of the supporters behind the goal celebrating, United hacked the ball to safety. Cue more confused looks being shared amongst the United defence.
The tactics were puzzling. We were playing the ball long, which was understandable given the wind. But their centre backs were winning the aerial battle and Potter could not get in the game. The wing wizard is at his best running at defenders but spent the majority of the game either with his back to goal or trying to trap balls skidding lethally off of the greasy pitch. Heslop was the wide man and looked panicked every time he got the ball. Barring his set-piece delivery Leven was nowhere whilst Chapman was doing his best to get stuck in. We were pretty toothless in attack but it was one of Leven’s dead balls that provided the next chance for Oxford. His corner was met well by Rigg at the near post but his header thumped the advertising board just wide of the goal. Just before the break Rigg fired a shot just high and wide. The teams went into the break level and, despite a couple of late chances, United could have no complaints.
The second half started much better. A hand ball gifted Oxford a free-kick in a position reminiscent of the cross Leven put in for Beano at the County Ground last season. It was that man Leven who swung a beautiful ball into the box but this time it was Andy Whing who was on hand to plant an exquisite header into the back of the net. Last year's Fans Player of the Year (and TBFUTH Award-winner) turned and sprinted to the Oxford fans to celebrate his first goal of the season. Sadly Whingy’s not the quickest and his teammates had halted his pilgrimage to the Oxford faithful before he reached the halfway line. A great moment and 3 points looked on the cards.
The ensuing half an hour was absolutely dire. Oxford weren’t in the game with the midfield duo of Chapman and Leven completely anonymous. Clovis Kamjo was winning the midfield battle on his own, at 21 he looks a very good player and the ball winner that Oxford desperately needed. On a rare foray forward a Rigg cross clipped the bar but it was all Barnet going forward. Andy Whing’s wing was being exploited time and time again and the alarm bells should have been ringing when Hyde nodded wide an open goal. He was adjudged to have been offside but it was all too easy for the Bees to get around the back. Five minutes later Whing was exposed again by Andy Yiadom whose ball found Wright, Mullins, Capaldi and Hyde in the box. Somehow it was Hyde who got there first and prodded the ball in. More baffled looks on the faces of the defence, more woeful defensive organisation. Whing won’t want to see Yiadom’s face, or heels, again soon. 2-2 with twenty minutes for United to hold on.
Pittman came on for Heslop, who may as well have been on the bench all half. The last ten minutes were very open. United were hard done by when Barnet keeper Stack caught a goal bound pass back. The in-direct free kick was given, yet it was inexplicably from a few yards wide of the goal when the offence had occurred centrally on the goal-line. The chance went begging. Clarke made a good save from a long range Jon Nurse shot. From the proceeding corner Ricky Holmes struck a first time volley from just outside the area like a bullet. It crashed just wide and would have been a strike to give Barnet the win they probably deserved.
There was time for one last chance for the Yellows to steal the points. Rigg collected the ball in the last minute of injury time and clipped a ball into to the box. Mullins rose highest and forced a header at goal. It hit the top right hand post and fell towards the opposite corner. The Oxford fans were aloft in anticipation, or because it was a terraced stand, only to see the ball come off the opposite post and out again. I have absolutely no idea how it didn’t go in, but the feeling of injustice felt by the United fans as they left the stadium was unfounded. It wasn’t a good performance and Barnet would have felt robbed. Rigg and Mullins were probably the only players to come out of the game with any credit, and now one of them has left the club.
Onwards to Northampton, but Raynes vs. an in-form Akinfenwa won’t make for particularly easy viewing.