Football: Oxford can look beyond survival

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The Independent Online
Oxford United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

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OXFORD supporters' predilection for Gary Glitter - 'Come On, Come On' is a London Road End favourite - represents the perfect choice for the Manor Ground, now that Denis Smith can field some real leaders of the gang, writes Henry Winter. From back to front along the most solid of spines, Oxford possess the sort of key performers who can lift their colleagues - and the club's fortunes.

On Saturday, as a backbone of Whitehead, Elliott, Magilton and Byrne contained and then overcame Derby County, it was difficult to ascertain which club had the stated ambition of winning promotion to the Premiership. Oxford, bottom of the First until this just victory, would be happy simply to stay up but the quality of the U's football and a rejuvenated spirit suggest the season's slog should be completed with a smile, amid mid-table security come May.

Derby, understrength and overpowered in crucial quarters, employed only one attacker, the industrious Paul Kitson, and paid for their caution.

Matt Elliott, Philip Whitehead and John Byrne have arrived at the Manor Ground courtesy of the money Oxford made from Stoke selling the former U's forward, Mark Stein, to Chelsea. Elliott, Scunthorpe's collosus of a captain, was shipped in from South Humberside for pounds 170,000, which already looks a tidy piece of business.

Elliott, one of those rare breed of ball-playing defensive titans, scored on his home debut - a thunderous header from Joey Beauchamp's 32nd-minute free-kick - and with one saving tackle on the goalbound Tommy Johnson ended any doubts as to whether he could make the ascent from Third to First.

'It was a bit of a gamble getting him,' Smith said. 'We went to see him at Doncaster and he had an absolute nightmare, but he came in afterwards and said that was his first bad game in years. But he's proved me right. He's very good on the ground and has great presence at free-kicks where we have been struggling to score.'

After Jim Magilton had missed a penalty, Oxford's newly acquired free-kick potency was displayed again. Off target from 12 yards but deadly from 30, Magilton, the embodiment of midfield commitment, curled a fine free-kick over the Derby wall to seal victory. 'We'd been doing free-kicks in training and Jim's were going all over the place,' Smith added. 'He was getting very frustrated. But his character showed today.' So did Oxford's.

Goals: Elliott (32) 1-0; Magilton (80) 2-0.

Oxford United (4-4-2): Whitehead; Robinson, Elliott, Ford, Rogan; Beauchamp, Lewis, Magilton, Allen; Cusack, Byrne (Penney, 88). Substitutes not used: Collins, Kee (gk).

Derby County (4-1-4-1): Taylor; Charles, Forsyth, Short, Nicholson (Kavanagh, 88); Coleman (Hayward, 76); Johnson, Harkes, Williams, Simpson; Kitson. Substitute not used: Sutton (gk).

Referee: R Gifford (Llanbradach, Mid Glam).