Reds maintained their enviable record of never losing on the opening day of a Football League campaign after picking up a hard-earned point at the Kassam Stadium in their opening League 2 fixture.
Reds kept the hosts at bay for long spells of a game containing very few clear-cut chances and took the lead on 56 minutes when Gwion Edwards smuggled a close-range header over the line after good work by Jimmy Smith and Roarie Deacon.
The lead only lasted nine minutes as Danny Hylton thumped in an equaliser but Reds gritted their teeth in the closing third of an absorbing rather than action-packed tussle and both they and the noisy contingent of 299 Reds’ fans will be delighted with the start to the Mark Yates’ era.
Although the first League team selected by Mark was largely as expected, he opted to play new captain Sonny Bradley at left-back with Jon Ashton and Joe McNerney, who was making his first League debut, in central defence. Seven of the starting XI were making their first starts for the club.
The first day of the season is invariably a warm one but the tempo at the start was good and Reds nearly scored in the fifth minute. Gwion Edwards’ corner to the far post was headed back across goal by Jon Ashton to Lee Barnard, whose header from close range was nodded off the line by Johnny Mullins.
There was no lack of physicality to the early moments either. Simon Walton was booked for a crude tackle from behind on Ryan Taylor and the next time they challenged the Oxford striker caught Walton on the head and he had to go off for stitches to a cut head, emerging several minutes later with his head swatched in bandages.
So the endeavour was evident in the first half but there was a lack of quality in the final third. Freddie Woodman made his first save in the 33rd minute, a routine take from Kemar Roofe’s shot. In front of him Reds defended diligently, and when Oxford did have a sight of goal Liam Donnelly made a brilliant tackle to stop Danny Hylton from getting in.
Walton made way at the break for Conor Henderson and Reds began the second half well. Roarie Deacon, who worked the channels tirelessly, fired a half-volley wide and he was heavily involved when Reds went in front on 56 minutes.
His clip from the right of the box was headed on by Jimmy Smith and Edwards, ghosting into vacant space at the far post, scored with a rare header from close range.
With 25 minutes to go Reds could have been pleased with their work to date but it was undone by a simple ball forward from Danny Rose down the inside-left channel. Hylton suddenly had a yard of space inside the box and he finished with aplomb, driving a low right-footed shot past the helpless Woodman.
Yates brought on Matt Harrold for Barnard and Lewis Young for Deacon with 20 minutes to go and Harrold nearly made an instant impact. Smith’s ball forward split the Oxford centre halves and for a moment it looked as if Harrold was in on goal, but as he was about to shoot Mullins got across to make his second crucial challenge of the afternoon.
In the closing stages the heat finally took its toll as the tempo dropped and mistakes were made but Woodman was still alert and the young keeper made two great saves in the space of a minute, tipping Roofe’s deflected effort around the post for a corner which Mullins met and Woodman was equal to his downward header which he pushed away before Reds got the danger away.
There were a few anxious moments in stoppage time when Oxford won a corner with seconds to go, but Harrold’s firm header out was followed by the referee’s final whistle to confirm a hard-earned opening-day point for the Reds.