23/24 Season Review Final Part

Having extended the season with victory in Exeter in the final game of April, United had the May of all Mays.

United had finished the League One season in fifth place, meaning a play-off semi-final against Peterborough United, with the first leg to be played at the Kassam Stadium. Posh had beaten United 3-0 in December but had been demolished 5-0 by the U’s just three weeks earlier, so it was no surprise that Oxford went into the game full of optimism. This was fully justified in a first half that Oxford dominated, although they were unable to convert any of their chances. Six minutes into the second half, United scored that all-important goal. Josh Murphy sent over a deep corner that Cameron Brannagan headed back across goal from beyond the far post. Skipper Elliott Moore rose highest to thump his header past Jed Steer to the loudest roar the Kassam had ever heard. Oxford continued to press, with Peterborough restricted to half chances, and at the end the Yellows were happy to be leading 1-0 going to London Road.

For most of the first half, defences were in control. Jamie Cumming made a fine save from Josh Knight midway through the half, while Murphy caused problems for the Peterborough defence, setting up Tyler Goodrham for a shot. The game burst into life five minutes before half-time. A Posh free kick was sent to the back post where Knight evaded his marker to fire home. The Peterborough fans were still celebrating when Owen Dale was tripped right on the edge of the home side’s penalty area. Brannagan blasted in a shot that struck the outstretched arm of Harrison Burrows. Penalty. Up stepped Brannagan to send Steer the wrong way and the one-goal advantage was restored on the stroke of half time. The U’s were under the cosh for much of the second half without being unduly troubled until the last ten minutes, when Sam Long threw himself at the ball to keep out Jonson Clarke-Harris’s goalbound shot from on the goal line. Knight thought he had scored with a close-range volley, but Cumming did superbly to dive full length to palm the ball away. And then there was the final whistle, and United were going to Wembley.

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On a beautiful sunny day, the home of English football was turned into a sea of yellow and white as Oxford and Bolton fans made their way to west London. It was United that stamped their mark on the game early on, as Long flew into a tackle to dispossess Paris Maghoma and leave the Bolton forward on the floor. This set the tone and all the initial challenges were won by Oxford, although the Trotters did have the first shot of the game, Josh Sheehan firing wide from distance. Not to be outdone, Ruben Rodrigues tried his luck with a similar outcome. United were in dreamland on the half-hour as Rodrigues found Murphy hugging the left touch line. He cut inside, into the Bolton penalty area, shrugged off a shirt pull and let fly, his shot taking a slight deflection off Ricardo Santos to send it out of Nathan Baxter’s reach and into the net. 1-0.

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Three minutes before the interval, the same combination were at it again. This time Rodrigues did well to control a high, dropping ball before sending a perfect pass behind the Bolton defence for Murphy to run onto. He beat the covering defenders for pace, took a touch to take the ball past Baxter and then slid it into the empty net. 2-0.

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Bolton had no choice but to come forward in the second half, leaving opportunities for Oxford to attack on the break. Twice Murphy broke clear, sliding his shot past Baxter and the far post on the first occasion and then forcing Baxter into a good save second time around. Murphy also headed just wide from a pin-point Long cross, while at the other end, the Oxford rearguard didn’t allow Bolton a single effort on target. Oxford also had claims for a penalty turned down after Baxter brought down Dale right on the edge of the area, with Joe Bennett stinging Baxter’s palms with his shot. Oxford held on comfortably during the nine minutes stoppage time and, at the end of a long, hard season, they will be playing Championship football in 2024/25.

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