United’s inconsistencies continued after they fell to a late, late defeat at the Proact Stadium. The home fans will have left the ground wondering how they managed to avoid defeat, let alone snatch a victory after witnessing a poor Chesterfield performance.
Chris Wilder brought back the fit again Alfie Potter for the now unfit Tom Craddock, Jake Forster-Caskey for the flu ridden Sean Rigg and Tony Capaldi for the injured Liam Davis as the U’s lined up with a 4-4-1-1 formation, Potter allowed to be the floating man in behind James Constable.
The changes seemed to have an instant impact as Oxford took the lead inside a minute; a Peter Leven corner was met by Johnny Mullins who despite slipping guided the ball over Chesterfield keeper Tommy Lee and the covering defender on the line to spark joyous scenes in the away end. These may have increased minutes later as Jake Forster-Caskey sent a thunderous header towards the top corner of the Chesterfield net but this time Lee was there to push the ball away from goal. United in my eyes were playing some of their best football of the season, Lee Cox was pulling the strings in midfield and the roaming Potter was receiving a lot of the ball. Simon Heslop and Andy Whing were combining well down the right-hand side and the centre back partnership of Jake Wright and Mullins looked composed against a toothless Chesterfield frontline.
In football, you need to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way to ensure you come out with a positive result. After Forster-Caskey’s header, United had another golden opportunity as a loose ball dropped to James Constable on the edge of the 6 yard box. Somehow, Constable managed to lash the ball over the bar and into the stand full of Oxford fans. The gasps of horror around the away stand also had a sense of “that could be a game-changing moment” about them and when referee Whitestone didn’t give a penalty after Constable was mugged in the area – this belief grew.
Ryan Clarke had had little to do in the half apart from collect crosses and stop one shot from the edge of area but he found himself having to pick the ball out of the net in first half stoppage time. Andy Whing conceded a free kick on Oxford’s right and after the ball was cleared, the resulting corner was delivered into the United area. It was panic stations at the near post, as the ball dropped; Clarke dived to claim it but couldn’t grasp a full hold and the ball rolled out to Liam Cooper who fired high into the roof of the net to give the hosts an undeserved leveller.
To give the Spireites some credit, they produced a much better performance in the second half – although they could have hardly been any worse. On loan Brennan Dickenson was causing the United back four many problems and fired a couple of shots wide before almost decapitating the brave Andy Whing with a powerfully struck shot. Wilder switched back to his more familiar 4-3-3 after around 65 minutes with the introductions of JP Pittman and Sean Rigg for Forster-Caskey and Heslop. Chesterfield introduced their own substitutions in the shape of a formidable trio – Marc Richards, Jack Lester and Luis Boa Morte. Lester and Richards linked well but Wright and Mullins were more than comfortable in dealing with them.
Referee Whitestone further endeared himself to the United faithful when he failed to send off Liam Cooper and/or Nathan Smith for assaults on Pittman and Potter within 5 minutes of each other. As the 90 minutes ticked away, Wilder decided to make his final substitution with Adam Chapman coming onto replace the tiring Potter. Chapman was barely on the pitch as Chesterfield took a throw in, broke forward and after a neat exchange of passes, Richards backheeled the ball into the path of Chris Atkinson who held his nerve to slot the ball past Clarke and send the 5000 home fans into jubilation. Mullins was booked during the celebrations for berating the referee about the lack of time given to allow Chapman to enter the pitch. If he had been further onto the pitch, he would have probably tracked Atkinson and perhaps would have prevented the winning goal.
This defeat piles more pressure on Chris Wilder ahead of Tuesday’s trip to fellow strugglers Barnet and with the news that Tom Craddock and Deane Smalley are out for a further month – his woes are deepened. In addition to these setbacks, Lee Cox picked up his fifth yellow of the season against the Spireites and will be suspended for the journey to North London.
Somewhere down the line, luck will change for Oxford, whether or not that is while Chris Wilder is at the club remains to be seen.