Oxford, pounds 11m in debt and struggling against relegation from the First Division, were leading Chelsea, the Premiership leaders, by Dean Windass's 52nd-minute goal as this fourth-round tie went into injury time.
Then Chelsea won a corner and, in the scramble that followed, Kevin Francis launched into a tackle on Gianluca Vialli. It was not pretty but television replays suggested it was fair. The referee, Mike Reed, disagreed - he gave a penalty which Franck Leboeuf converted.
Leboeuf had earlier become so upset by the tackles on him he had exchanged "see you outside" gestures and angry words with Malcolm Shotton, the Oxford manager. "I asked him to wait for me in the tunnel as I wanted to talk to him. But he didn't want to talk, he only wanted to fight," Leboeuf said afterwards.
Reed is the same referee who dismissed the Oxford defender Martin Gray last season in the FA Cup at Leeds in a tie which Oxford lost. Television showed that decision was dubious. The previous year, Reed, who has issued more cautions than any other referee in the Premiership, had given Chelsea a penalty in the last minute of extra time in their fifth-round replay against Leicester City. Again the decision was, at least, contentious.
"I could have accepted the decision if Francis had come in from behind but he came in from the side," said Shotton. Jim Smith, a former manager of Oxford and now in charge of Derby, had stronger words on Sky. He said that Oxford had been "cheated". Reed himself said he had seen the incident again and "was happy" with his decision. Vialli, the Chelsea player-manager, agreed, saying: "I knew at once it should be a penalty."
The only consolation for Oxford is a lucrative replay at Stamford Bridge next Wednesday with the winner travelling to Sheffield Wednesday. Reed will again take charge and Oxford will have to forget last night, for Chelsea will surely not be as poor again.
They began well enough, impressing with their movement and passing, but then Oxford, whose players went two months without pay earlier this season, took the game to Chelsea. Ed de Goey had to be sharp to take a Windass header off Matt Murphy's head.
In an indication of Oxford's sparse resources they could not find a second goalkeeper to put among the five substitutes. Paul Gerrard, the usual goalkeeper, was unavailable as he is on loan from Everton and in his place was Elliott Jackson playing only his 12th senior game. The 21-year-old proved more than equal to the task. His first fine save came from a Gianfranco Zola free-kick and he went on to make a string of excellent saves. He is out of contract this summer and this display will have alerted several clubs.
Another to impress was Windass. He almost stabbed in a Les Robinson cross three minutes after the break, but made sure shortly after as he rose to head in Jamie Cook's corner.
Chelsea briefly rallied with Jackson saving from Dennis Wise and Vialli. Chelsea then appeared to lose momentum and Francis twice wasted excellent chances to settle the tie. As the seconds ticked away, Chelsea went forward once more, but when Jackson made a superb save from Wise in the closing minutes the tie seemed lost. Then came Reed's intervention.
Oxford United (4-4-2): Jackson; Robinson, Watson, Gilchrist, Powell; Banger (Remi, 88), Gray, Tait, Cook; Murphy (Francis, 61), Windass. Substitutes not used: Wilsterman, Weatherstone, Smith.
Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Terry, Duberry, Leboeuf, Le Saux; Petrescu (Babayaro, 80), Di Matteo, Desailly (Goldbaek, 80), Babayaro; Zola (Nicholls, 86), Vialli. Substitutes not used: Morris, Hitchcock (gk).
Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).
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