You’ve heard the old saying ‘the one that got away’? This was it for Hartlepool United.
For extended periods in this match you would not have known which was the side second in League Two and which was 19th.
Pools, at last, found their form at Victoria Park. Sadly, they could not find the net.
Yes, Trevor Carson pulled off a wonder save, or two, but Oxford United were mightily relieved to go away with the three points.
Their winner was a fine goal, tucked away superbly, by supersub Danny Hylton 20 minutes from time.
But Pools should already have been in front.
Jake Gray produced a terrific piece of skill in the 29th minute and hit Ben Buchel’s crossbar. Just a few millimetres lower and you would have seen a goal of the season contender.
And eight minutes after half-time, Kal Naismith unlocked the away defence putting Mikael Mandron through on goal.
Had he shot either side of Buchel or waited for the Liechenstein number one to go to ground so he could lift the ball over him, he would have scored,
Alas, he did neither and shot straight at the goalie, Buchen saving with his boots.
A point though would still have been acceptable but that was snatched away from Pools 20 minutes from time when sub Danny Hylton applied the smoothest of cushioned volleys past Trevor Carson at the the Town End.
That Pools trudged off empty-handed was something of a kick in a tender area of the body. The football was the best Pools have served up at the Vic, but there was no reward.
Top marks to Ronnie Moore and the players for entertainment and endeavour.
Ronnie has forgotten more about football than this writer will ever know and forgive me for stating the obvious, but to win matches you need goals.
It is 470 minutes since a striker scored for Pools, Billy Paynter netting against Crawley.
Second-top scorer Scott Fenwick never even made it onto the field here but if Pools are to win, it may be time to give him a game or two.
Of course, this Friday at Salford City, it’s all about not losing but given the likelihood is Pools will concede at least one, they need to find the proverbial onion bag.
Will Fenwick fit into the system? It’s a question for Moore but the answer should be find room for him.
There is a vacant spot given Kal Naismith is cup-tied. Mandron will start and hopefully he will deliver on the big stage in front of the BBC2 cameras.
He came with a good reputation – he is the joint leading scorer for Sunderland’s U21 side. As Moore pointed out after the game, the Frenchman is a “young kid, still learning”.
That may well be true, but he’s a kid who has been at a Premier League club for three years. He’s clearly got ability, he’s a good athlete and stands 6ft 3in, hopefully he can translate promise into an end result.
Ironically, it was the least likely candidate to find the net who whistled a piledriver just past Buchel’s goal inside the first 60 seconds – Nicky Featherstone letting fly from 30 yards.
Featherstone, restored to the starting XI, had Pools on the front foot from the start, pulling the strings nicely in the midfield.
Moore had sent Pools out in a 4-3-3, 4-5-1, 4-1-4-1, depending on your take.
Featherstone was excellent, as was Carl Magnay, the skipper influential higher up the field than usual and Jake Gray bright going forward.
Magnay headed wide from 15 yards from Michael Duckworth’s cross and the skipper went down in box after Rhys Oates played in the ball, prompting muted penalty appeals from fans in the Town End.
Carson saved from Chris Maguire but it was a rare threat from an Oxford side who were being out-thought, out-fought and out-played.
Gray was denied by the woodwork when he controlled with his right and swivelled, hitting his shot with the left foot from the edge of the area. Such skill deserved a goal.
Mandron had a shot blocked and Naismith’s great ball in from the right was so inviting but no one was there to convert.
At the other end, only a great defensive from Duckworth and Matthew Bates denied Liam Sercombe who looked in on goal.
The half-time cuppa, however, was just what Pools did not want and they started the second period slowly.
Then came the pivotal four minutes of the match. Mandron fluffed his lines in the 57th minute after being played in by Naismith and a groggy Magnay was taken of on the hour after a bang to the head.
Replacement Brad Walker was bubbly, but Pools were not the same after Magnay’s exit.
Carson saved a MacDonald free-kick and scrambled away the rebound before the U’s could turn it in, but he was beaten in the 70th minute. MacDonald sauntered forward unmolested past Jake Carroll and his cross was put away by Hylton.
Now this old, slow, writer was the world’s worst left-back, but there was no way a winger was going past me. He’d have been tackled or hacked. Carroll did neither.
Pools huffed and puffed, Walker going just over from outside the box and seeing a shot turned wide by Buchel, while Naismith’s shot following an indirect free-kick in the away box was charged down .
Featherstone and Rakish Bingham linked up but instead of shooting, the midfielder found the sub who fired over with his left foot on 84 minutes.
It summed up the day for Pools.