Town: Jayson Leutwiler, Rhys Sharpe, Liam Lawrence (c), Connor Goldson, Jermaine Grandison, James Collins (Tyrone Barnett, 66), Ryan Woods, Bobby Grant, Mark Ellis (Mickey Demetriou, 61), Cameron Gayle, Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro
Subs not used: Mark Halstead, Mikael Mandron, Keith Southern, Scott Vernon, Andy Mangan
Oxford United: Ryan Clarke, Joe Skarz (Callum O’Dowda, 76), Johnny Mullins, Jake Wright (c), Pat Hoban (James Roberts, 69), Danny Hylton, Alex Macdonald, George Baldock, Josh Ruffels, Michael Collins, Kemar Roofe (Armand Gnanduillet, 86)
Subs not used: Jamie Ashdown, Danny Rose, Sam Long, Che Dunkley
Referee: T. Harrington
Assistants: W. Barratt & W. Smallwood
Fourth Official: S. Meredith
Attendance: 5,265 (359 from Oxford)
Martin Wild reports from Greenhous Meadow
Liam Lawrence was Shrewsbury’s hero this afternoon with two goals as Town made it two wins in four days. Lawrence’s second minute penalty and a free-kick inside the last 10 minutes won the points for Salop - who had to play the last half hour a man light after Rhys Sharpe’s sending off. The outcome might have been different with Oxford proving to be very tricky opponents, but the victory was enough to keep Town within touching distance of leaders Burton Albion.
Micky Mellon stuck with the squad that travelled to Morecambe in midweek - reward for a commanding performance in a 4-1 win, which was a season’s best away from home. That meant a home debut for youngster Sharpe after an impressive display on the Lancashire coast. He wouldn’t enjoy this one half as much.
Spring was certainly in the air at kick-off, with bright sunshine casting the stadium in shade as Oxford got the game started.
After less than 90 seconds Town were awarded a penalty when U’s skipper Jake Wright upended Cameron Gayle on the right hand edge of the area. The referee immediately pointed to the spot and there were few complaints from the away side. Up stepped Lawrence to plant the kick firmly into the corner with Ryan Clarke in goal hapless to keep it out.
It was all Town in the opening 10 minutes with Gayle seeing plenty of the ball but not able to put telling crosses into the box. There was an injury delay when Mark Ellis and Pat Hoban clashed heads just inside the U’s half, with Ellis needing a couple of minutes attention from physio Chris Skitt, before resuming his duties in Shrews now familiar back three.
As Oxford capitalised on a Jermaine Grandison error, Danny Hylton dispossessed him and put what looked like a goal on a plate for teammate Alex McDonald, only for Gayle to make a vital interception on the six yard line. It was brilliant work by Gayle who had tracked back almost 70 yards to almost certainly prevent an Oxford leveller.
There was a comical moment midway through the half. A blocked tackle sent the matchball careering towards the Executive boxes in the East Stand, and up popped suited and booted Chief Executive Matt Williams to return it.
With 26 minutes played Shrewsbury had a really good chance to stretch their legs. Lawrence’s corner was headed on by Connor Goldson and James Collins swivelled and volleyed from close range but lashed the volley miles over the top.
The visitors looked handy and had responded well to conceding that early goal. The Collins chance had come from a set play but other than that, Town had struggled to create a meaningful opening with a third of the game gone.
Oxford’s best chance came when Josh Ruffel’s lofted ball in was weakly headed away by Grandison. Kemar Roofe picked up the loose ball and fired goalwards but Jayson Leutwiler blocked at his near post. Grandison did well though a minute later, closing the door on Hylton with the striker having taken up a menacing position, and Leutwiler had to be alert to deny Hylton again soon after with Oxford by now enjoying a purple spell. MacDonald’s wickedly curling free-kick had to be turned acrobatically away by Town’s keeper who was being called upon far more than his opposite number Clarke. Penalty kick aside, the Oxford number one had barely laid a glove on the ball.
Grandison volleyed wide five minutes before half-time but a second would have been really harsh on Michael Appleton’s side. They were threatening every time they came forward and looked the most likely to score as half-time approached. Despite the lead at the halfway stage, Salop still had plenty of work to do before they could celebrate a much needed three points.
Half-Time: Town 1 Oxford United 0
Hylton picked up an early yellow for dumping Goldson to the turf and seemed to rile Mr. Harrington with a touch of dissent. It didn’t upset the momentum of the U’s though who picked up where they left off and Town strangely subdued. Hylton fired another warning shot across Shrews’ bows with a curling effort that had Leutwiler rooted to his spot. Thankfully, it arced wide and still the hosts lead remained in tact. The crowd were subdued too but this performance was full of angst and tension unlike the one at the Globe Arena on Tuesday night. Supporters turning up expecting an avalanche after Oxford lost 0-2 at home to bottom of the table Hartlepool in midweek, had been given a rude awakening.
Sharpe also found his way into the referee’s notebook when he manhandled Roofe and it resulted in more backs to the wall defending for the title chasers.
Mellon had seen enough and decided on a shake-up just before the hour with Oxford continuing to dictate the play. But with Andy Mangan and Tyrone Barnett both stripped, Town were reduced to ten men. Sharpe fouled Roofe again and he was always going to see a card for the recklessness of the challenge. Sure enough, out came the second yellow and it was down the tunnel time for the youngster. Mangan and Barnett sat back down and Mickey Demetriou came on for Ellis, although Barnett got his chance with Collins hooked five minutes later.
Hylton couldn’t sort his feet out with 20 minutes left otherwise Town might have been in big trouble and as he tried to recover the situation, Demetriou did well to see the ball out.
Boy, this was nervy stuff with every minute seeming like five, and Town still hanging on for dear life to a lead they never looked like building on in all honesty. And it took some desperate last ditch tackling from a committed Town rearguard to keep United out as they remained on the front foot.
There was a contentious issue with nine minutes left when Bobby Grant skipped past Wright to go clear. He was tripped by the U’s skipper who was lucky to see yellow. But the punishment was much worse for the away side as Lawrence smashed home the free-kick to make it 2-0. The crowd and the bench went wild because Shrewsbury hadn’t been at their best by a distance but now looked to have settled the match. To compound Oxford’s misery, Clarke was booked after the linesman alerted the ref to something after the goal.
The sting had been taken out of United’s tail who probably deserved better, but it’s goals that settle football matches and Shrews had two of them. They had five minutes of stoppage time to get through but played with intelligence as the away fans drifted away wondering what might have been. A huge result this one for Shrewsbury Town and a huge debt owed to skipper Lawrence.
Full-Time: Town 2 Oxford United 0