Football: Byrne lights bright spark

Oxford United. . . .2

Derby County . . . .0

NEW ARRIVALS invariably revive expectations. Matt Elliott and John Byrne orchestrated a winning start to their Manor Ground careers yesterday, the cut-price recruits helping beleaguered Oxford record their first victory in seven League matches - a well-merited result that lifted them off the foot of the First Division and again cast a doubt on Derby's Premiership pretensions.

Oxford's cut from the deal that took their former player Mark Stein from Stoke City to Chelsea enabled Denis Smith to invest pounds 50,000 in Millwall's Byrne and pounds 170,000 in Elliott, Scunthorpe's imposing centre-half. The Stein windfall may have saved Oxford's season as no other transfer funds were available to Smith, such is the parlous state of the club's finances.

'We had hard-working players here,' Smith said. 'But now with the new players we have enough ability to go up the table.' Elliott, who made the two-division jump with nonchalant ease, showed his considerable talent three minutes after he and Byrne had received an enthusiastic reception. When Byrne, a lively and much-needed inventive presence in United's front line, was fouled on the right, Elliott, 6ft 3in and as solidly constructed as an Oxford college, marched forward towards the London Road end. Joey Beauchamp's centre was superb and Elliott charged through Derby's much vaunted back four to head narrowly over - a miss, but nonetheless an accurate foretaste of what was in store.

After Paul Kitson and Tommy Johnson had gone close only to be denied by, respectively, Philip Whitehead, the hosts' keeper, and Elliott, Oxford took the lead on the half-hour. Elliott, having readjusted his radar, made no mistake this time. He connected powerfully with Beauchamp's free-kick and his downward header flew past Martin Taylor in the Derby goal.

The breakthrough instilled immediate self-belief in the Oxford camp. Combining commitment in pursuit of the ball with composure in possession, Smith's pleasing and cheaply assembled side made a mockery of Derby's millionaires' club.

The contrast between the accomplished Elliott and County's pounds 2.5m stopper, Craig Short, was poignant.

In the second half, Oxford further emasculated the Rams. Short brought down a fast-moving Chris Allen to give Jim Magilton a chance from the penalty spot, which he promptly squandered. 'Seventeen successful kicks and now he has missed two in a row,' Smith smiled. His sterling captain made amends with a fierce free-kick from 30 yards after John Harkes had fouled Nick Cusack.

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