FIVE minutes of second-half madness dealt Hartlepool United’s play-off hopes a knockout blow on Friday night.
First, Simon Walton picked up his second yellow card and his marching orders before Jack Compton gave away a soft free-kick two minutes later, from which David Connolly headed home the winner.
It always looked like one goal would win it and so it proved.
Defeat was frustrating and bitterly disappointing for Colin Cooper, the players and the 185 travelling fans as up until that stage there wasn’t a great deal to separate the two sides.
Ultimately though, the red card and free-kick two minutes later cost Pools dearly.
Is this the end of their play-off hopes?
Not quite but they are on the ropes and can’t afford anymore blows like this if they are to make that elusive top seven spot.
They sit 10th, five points adrift and that is the best they can hope for come Saturday teatime, once the rest of the chasing pack have played this afternoon.
Southend United were the only other team to play, picking up a point after a goalless draw away to Bristol Rovers.
But defeat for Pools to sixth-placed Oxford means they are now 10 points ahead of Cooper’s side.
And with just eight games to go, you can confidently say Pools won’t catch them, meaning there is only one place left to play for – currently occupied by Plymouth Argyle.
While Victoria Park may have been turned back into a fortress in recent weeks - with five consecutive clean sheets and four wins – the same cannot be said about the away form.
Defeat last night means Pools have picked up just two points from five games away from the comforts of home soil recently.
Not good enough if you want to be serious play-off contenders and that, ultimately, will prove their downfall.
Pools struggled to get into any kind of rhythm or tempo against Oxford, with their play in the final third lacking any zest or clinical finishing.
Oxford weren’t much better.
But it was a frustration for Cooper because Oxford, missing suspended duo Tom Newey and Michael Raynes and the injured Johnny Mullins, had had to ring the changes.
But the Pools players couldn’t take advantage and repeat the free-flowing football on show in last weekend’s 4-0 home win over Bristol Rovers.
The Oxford fans and players were also given a pre-match boost with the news they are set to appoint their new manager today, ending caretaker manager Mickey Lewis’ 12-game run in charge.
Cooper – who welcomed right-back Michael Duckworth back onto the bench – made just one change with Compton replacing the injured Andy Monkhouse, out for a month with a hamstring strain.
It was a tentative start to the match from both sides in the pouring rain.
The first real opportunity came in the 11th minute, Jack Barmby was allowed to run in on goal but the 19-year-old couldn’t make the most of the opportunity and fired a shot just wide of Ryan Clarke’s left-hand post.
Moments later James Constable should have done better from 12-yards out but miscued his shot after good work down the left from Sean Rigg.
Walton, who had enjoyed a good game until his sending off, had to be alert in the 15th minute - nicking the ball from the toe of Connolly inside the area after he burst free from captain Sam Collins.
It was a well-timed challenge.
Compton, looking to impress on his return to the team, then slid in Luke James but the 19-year-old screwed his effort well wide of the post – not for the last time either, sadly.
Scott Flinders then had to be alert in the 19th minute to prevent Connolly’s low shot from creeping inside his front post, doing just enough to push the ball wide for a corner.
It was an even contest but Pools weren’t at their most free-flowing and were, at times, sloppy in possession.
The midfield also failed to make the most of Jordan Richards’ marauding runs down the right flank with several mis-placed passes.
Clear opportunities were few and far between in the first half but Pools did exert some pressure late on with five consecutive corners – Christian Burgess going closest but his header was tipped onto the bar by Clarke.
Barmby then ended the half as he’d started it, but his shot was this time pushed wide of the right-hand post.
The second-half was far better for the spectators, end-to-end at times.
James was clean through within seconds of the re-start but Clarke just managed to get there before him, then up the other end Walton looked like he’d fouled dangerman Rigg in the penalty area but referee Andy Davies waved it away.
It was a major let off for Pools, who were dealt a blow in the 65th minute – Walton booked for a foul on the half-way line.
That was bad enough at the time because his 10th booking of the season meant he was set to miss the next two matches.
But it got worse 10 minutes later – Walton received his second yellow card for a foul on Rigg.
Pools were now down to 10 men for the remaining 15 minutes plus stoppage time. The worst thing that could happen was to concede.
And they did just that two minutes later.
Compton, who didn’t enjoy the best of games, gave away a foul, again on Rigg, and from the resulting set piece Connolly found time and space to head home past Flinders.
Oxford almost doubled their lead in the 80th minute, Constable played through on goal but he was unable to steer the ball past Flinders who produced a smart stop.
Cooper then brought on Jonathan Franks and James Poole with the side going all-out attack in a 3-3-3 formation, with fellow sub Antony Sweeney adding legs.
But it was the home side that almost extended their slender lead, sub Alfie Potter firing high over the bar when clean through.
James then had two chances to snatch a point at the death but both flew wide of the upright, while Sweeney’s weak header in the dying moments didn’t trouble Clarke.
The press box was full of scouts and Football League managers taking advantage of Friday night football; MK Dons boss Karl Robinson was there along with former Pools and Bournemouth striker Steve Fletcher – believed to have been scouting Brad Walker for the Championship side.
Former Pools midfielder Tommy Widdrington was also there scouting.
Sadly, not too many of the Pools players caught the eye last night. They will be hoping for a change of fortunes on Tuesday night when Mansfield Town visit the Vic.
And Cooper will be looking for his players to land a few of their own punches in the final weeks of the season.
They have nothing left to lose.
Pools (4-4-2): Flinders, Richards, Collins (C), Burgess, Holden (Poole, 86), Walton, Walker, Compton (Sweeney, 77), Barmby (Franks, 84), James, Harewood.
Subs Not Used: Rafferty (gk), Rowbotham, Hawkins, Duckworth.
Booked: Richards, Walton.
Sent off: Walton.
Oxford United (4-4-2): Clarke, Hunt, Bevans, Wright (C), Long, Williams (Potter, 37), Whing, Ruffels, Rigg, Connolly, Constable (Smalley, 90).
Subs Not Used: Crocombe, Rose, Davies, O’Dowda, Wroe.
Goal: Connolly (77)
Referee: Andy Davies (Hampshire)
Attendance: 4,954 (Pools) 185
Scott Flinders: 7. Couldn’t do much about the goal. Solid enough night apart from that and made one outstanding save second half.
Jordan Richards: 6. Frustrating night for Richards, who had acres of space in first-half but teammates couldn’t find him with a pass. Booked.
Darren Holden: 6. Was caught out at times in the second-half and gave ball away couple of times. Subbed late on as Pools went for it.
Christian Burgess: 7. Calm on the ball and made a couple of important tackles. But will be disappointed with Connolly’s goal.
Sam Collins: 8. MOM. Pools’ best player, won almost every header and made several hefty challenges.
Simon Walton: 6. Let himself and teammates down with two yellow cards. They scored two minutes after he was sent off. Had been one of the better players first half.
Brad Walker: 6. Not Walker’s night. Couldn’t influence the game or get any rhythm going.
Jack Compton: 6. Chance to shine in place of Andy Monkhouse but didn’t really grab it. Got in several dangerous positions but needed a bit more composure. Gave away free-kick for their goal.
Jack Barmby: 6. Doesn’t do enough out of possession and struggled to have an impact when he did have the ball.
Luke James: 6. Seemed to forget his shooting boots tonight. Missed three good chances, dragging the shots wide of the post.
Marlon Harewood: 6. Played the full 90 minutes but didn’t do enough to influence the game. Needed him as one of the experienced players to be the talisman.
Antony Sweeney: 6. Gave Pools fresh legs and could have snatched equaliser in last few seconds but header was saved.
James Poole: N/A
Jonathan Franks: N/A
Pete Stephenson @petestephenson2
@HPoolMail at least effort and desire was there should be beating these poor teams but things out of our hands are killing us #terracetweets
Tom Reeves @tomreeves88
@HPoolMail 3 games away 5 at home .. The Vic is the fortress !! #terracetweets #playoffs
Mark Carroll @MARKCARROLL3
@RMennearHMail disapointed as i expected better and for us too really have a go at Oxford, they were not one of the best teams ive seen