Branden Horton’s second goal in two games wasn’t enough as Rovers fell to a 2-1 defeat to high-flying Oxford United.
Rovers struggled to contain a confident U's side in the first half and the visitors were well-deserving of their lead at the break, but the young Rovers team showed real desire and determination second half to get back into it. Horton equalised with 15 minutes of the match remaining with a cool finish but Rovers were struck with a sickening blow when substitute James Henry fired into the top corner in the 87th minute to snatch the points away from Rovers.
Gary McSheffrey made three changes to the side which suffered defeat in the Emirates FA Cup on the weekend. Liam Ravenhill, Joe Dodoo and Jordy Hiwula dropped to the bench with Ethan Galbraith, Tiago Cukur and Ben Blythe taking their place in the starting XI. The latter of these three changes allowed Tommy Rowe to take up a freer role higher up the pitch. Omar Bogle and Ed Williams returned to the bench.
It was partly down to Rowe’s tenacity and directness that provided an early half-chance for Rovers. His pressing (along with Cukur) forced the defence into an error and Aidan Barlow was able to pick the ball up and drive goalward. His effort from distance was crowded out.
Oxford were on top from the start but there was some level of fortune when Sykes gave them the lead. A poor clearance from Rovers put him straight onto the defence and he rode a number of challenges which bounced kindly for him and left him with just Louis Jones to beat. Sykes showed coolness to chip the keeper.
Sykes was soon in again but this time his effort was beaten away by Jones and Sam Long’s chipped cross from the right was collected by the keeper. However, it was Jones straying from his box which allowed former Rovers loanee Herbie Kane chance to put a ball in the box. Rowe cleared the initial cross as far as Skyes who sliced his effort over the bar.
Tom Anderson made a couple of important blocks while Oxford twice kicked the ball out of play when trying to put the ball in the box.
Rovers forged their first attempt on target in the 34th minute. Smith, Galbraith, Barlow and Rowe linked up well with the latter’s cross being blocked for a corner. Galbraith’s deep delivery was headed goalward by Anderson but it was straight into the gloves of Simon Eastwood.
The forays into the opposition’s half were few and far between for Rovers, while Oxford failed to capitalise again on their numerous first-half chances.
Brannagan drove a low effort so close to the target that the visiting fans celebrated thinking it was in and just two minutes later, Gavin Whyte's strike to the near post almost got the better of Jones but the keeper recovered to make the stop at the second attempt while another ball into the Rovers box from Long was cleared by Anderson. That concluded the action for the first half.
There were chances for both sides at half-time with Brannagan replaced by James Henry for the visitors while Cukur and Blythe were replaced by Dodoo and Hiwula. The changes made a huge difference for Rovers who were much improved second half.
Hiwula was on the pitch just three minutes before he registered a shot. He turned the ball around the defender into the path of Horton who made a really positive run forward and showed composure to cut the ball back to substitute Hiwula in the Oxford area. The winger shinned the shot over the crossbar.
In a frantic few minutes of football, Whyte should certainly have scored when Kane won the ball back and released the visiting No.21. He ran unchallenged towards the goal but Jones did brilliantly to stick out a left leg and deny him.
This released Rovers to go straight down the other end, working the ball to Dodoo who had two shots blocked by Elliott Moore before shooting wide on the third attempt. Rovers were on the attack again soon after but this one ended with Rowe slicing an effort some distance wide of the target.
The next ten minutes was filled with stoppages with Steve Sneddon and then Jordan Thorniley both needing treatment.
Around the hour mark, Rowe began to assert more influence on the game. He slid a wonderful ball through to Barlow who beat the offside trap but was thwarted by excellent defending from Elliott Moore. Rowe then fired narrowly wide after driving into the visitors’ defence and on the third occasion slid in Hiwula who dragged his shot wide of the far post.
Defensively, Rovers were very organised to catch Oxford offside time after time.
The equaliser came on the 74th minute. Aggressive pressing by Rovers in the middle of the park saw them work the ball to Horton who drove determinedly into the box and slotted coolly inside the far post to draw the game level.
For the final stages of the match, things were wide open. Bogle had an effort deflected wide while Taylor managed somehow to skew a back post tap in wide of the far post under pressure from Kyle Knoyle.
Despite Rovers much better play – Oxford regained the lead with three minutes of normal time remaining when the ball was worked to substitute Henry who unleashed a stunning effort into the top corner.