Just when it appeared as if we had turned a corner, we had to go and 'do an Oxford' and screw it up with a disappointing defeat at home to Dagenham & Redbridge. If wins against Wycombe and Barnet had provided ample reason to feel positive at last about this Oxford side, this performance against Dagenham was a stark reminder that we still have a long way to go if we want to reach the level that is expected and demanded.
We started the game lethargically and Dagenham soon took control, forcing Clarke into action early to keep out a dangerous-looking shot from Medy Elito. The Daggers were everything we were not; they wanted the ball, they created space in dangerous positions and they were committed to a simple and effective passing game. Oxford on the other hand seemed flat-footed, incapable of maintaining possession and slow to close down their opponents.
So it was unsurprising that Dagenham took a deserved 1-0 lead into the break and perhaps would have led by more, if not for the timely intervention of Jake Wright to clear a goalbound shot off the line after Clarke suicidally rushed from his goal. The goal, when it came, was disappointing not because it was undeserved, but because it was thoroughly preventable. A simple corner routine found Sam Williams unchallenged, who steered his header into the gaping goal. The defence failed to do their relatively simple jobs on two fronts; firstly, in failing to mark properly, and secondly by not stationing someone on the near post.
Despite all this we did have some chances in the first half to snatch an undeserved equaliser. Dagenham were overambitious with their attacking play at times and were almost caught on the break on a couple of occasions, the best of which saw James Constable race clear before taking himself too wide and blasting the ball at Daggers goalkeeper Chris Lewington.
The second half started in much the same manner as the first, with the home side looking generally sluggish and out of sorts. Dagenham lumped a long free kick up towards our area, sparking the depressingly predictable chaos in our defence. The ball fell to Dwight Gayle, whose shot was well-saved by Clarke, but Luke Howell was on hand to knock in the rebound.
Finally, this seemed to provide the shock that woke up our dreary side. Oxford began to press forward with an urgency lacking in the first 55 minutes as they tried desperately to salvage something from this match. Rigg did excellently to beat his man on the left wing and picked out Tom Craddock from the byline, whose volley left the 'keeper with no chance. Game on?
Seconds later it was game off again, as Dagenham restored their two-goal cushion – again from a corner, again the defence simply went to sleep at a set piece. Luke Wilkinson this time evaded his marker to gain a free header and leave us back in the mire.
One of the only positives from tonight at least is that Craddock continues to find the net, and it was his efforts which again put us back in touch. Femi Ilesanmi played a suicidal back pass in the general direction of his goalkeeper which was easily intercepted by Craddock, who coolly slotted home to restore the faith.
An undeserved equaliser appeared to be within reach when Dagenham midfielder Kevin Maher was rightly sent off for a second bookable offence. However, this arguably signalled the end of our challenge by killing off any remaining attacking ambition that may have lingered within the Dagenham side and they focused their efforts on defending their lead – mainly through a series of frustrating stoppages and timewasting tactics which the referee did nothing to stop.
It was a frustrating end to the evening, as we failed to create a single meaningful chance in the last 20 minutes despite playing with a man advantage. The defeat marked a return to the dismal performances of a few weeks ago and leaves us looking to recover on Saturday when bogey side Torquay are the visitors.