73% possession and 30 attempts on goal to Gillingham’s 16 – the statistical story of the match will have left Oxford boss Karl Robinson scratching his head. The numbers didn’t lie but by no means were Gillingham unworthy of their victory in a resilient home display. The yellows always looked inventive and played the far better football yet the Gills had equally as many goalscoring opportunities and ultimately, their defending was far superior.
Steve Evans’s side found themselves 2-0 up courtesy of a quickfire double midway through the first-half from Vadaine Oliver and Jacob Mellis. Oliver opened the scoring and his league account for the season too when he nodded home Jordan Graham’s wicked delivery from the left. This was a fitting reward for the big target man who has proved to be a real handful upfront since his summer switch from Northampton Town.
Mellis then made it 2-0 four minutes, albeit in slightly fortuitous fashion: his initial shot was blocked but the ball kindly rebounded back and he made no mistake with a guided half volley from just outside the box. The midfielder is a player Steve Evans knows well having worked with him at Mansfield Town, and although his ability has never been questioned, his behaviour off the pitch has sometimes preceded him – an incident involving a smoke grenade at Chelsea’s training ground springs to mind.Embed from Getty Images
The U’s reduced the deficit very early into the second half thanks to Dan Agyei who capitalised on a defensive mix-up in Bonham’s goalmouth to prod the ball in from a matter of yards. Robinson would have certainly felt this goal was more than deserved as his team had their opponents pinned back since they scored their second.
Despite this early setback in the half, the hosts remained calm and continued to defend admirably and frustrate their opponents – and soon enough, they reclaimed their 2-goal advantage through Graham. Some tidy play down the right culminated in Ryan Jackson beating Josh Ruffels with ease and providing an inch-perfect cross for Graham to volley past Simon Eastwood. Dominic Samuel, the club’s new number 9, could have rubbed salt into the Oxford wounds late on were it not for a smart save from Eastwood.Embed from Getty Images
Graham is an early contender for League 1 signing of the season with four goals to his name already and should he stay fit, this could be his best campaign to date. His career so far has been disrupted by injuries, too many loan spells and even a manager by the name of Nuno Espírito Santo hoping to deploy him as a wing-back. However, now he is settled and playing under an experienced manager with pedigree at this level, he could unlock his true potential.
Even though the Gills defended stoutly throughout the match, their backline was breached on a number of occasions. At 2-0, Bonham denied Ruffels from point-blank range and Cameron Brannagan missed a more or less open goal; and not long after Agyei’s goal, Matty Taylor headed over a great chance.
On this evidence, Robinson must endeavour to sign at least one centre-back before the EFL transfer deadline on Friday. Last season’s club captain, Rob Dickie, moved to QPR in the summer and he is yet to be replaced so Robinson has been forced to partner Elliott More with either the inexperienced Robert Atkinson or right-back Sam Long. The team’s form has suffered as a result as they have won one game and lost three so far this season.
While it has been a disappointing beginning to 2020/21 for Oxford, they did reach the play-off final last season and certainly have enough quality within their ranks to challenge for promotion once again. Not only have Taylor (permanently) and Liam Kelly (loan deal) re-signed, but Sam Winnall and Sean Clare have followed those two through the door at the Kassam Stadium.
Clare in particular is a very useful player by virtue of his versatility even if he did struggle at right-back against Graham. Evans actually admitted that he was keen to bring Clare back to Priestfield with his successful loan spell there during the 2017-18 season in mind, but it wasn’t possible due to the small budget at his disposal.
In a recent pre-match press conference, Evans also revealed that he would like to conclude his transfer business with a player from the Scottish premiership. Given there are already six loan players at the club and only five can be part of a matchday squad, this potential signing would have to be a permanent deal. This might be an obstacle because the Gills aren’t known for signings other than free transfers and loans as illustrated by the fact that the only player bought for a fee since 2011 was John Akinde last January.Embed from Getty Images
Nevertheless, Gillingham have still had an impressive window owing to the shrewdness of Evans in the market. Two exciting youngsters have joined on loan from Arsenal in the shape of Zech Medley and Trae Coyle. Kyle Dempsey decided to reunite with former manager Evans when the likes of Hull City and Sunderland were rumoured to be chasing his signature. On top of that, the aforementioned Samuel chose the garden of England as his next destination following his release from Blackburn Rovers. Most importantly however, last season’s standouts Connor Ogilvie and Jack Tucker will remain at the club barring a late twist.
There is considerable expectation on Oxford and as such, their aim will be to finish in the play-offs. On the other hand, the Gills are very much an unknown quantity and with a man in charge boasting seven promotions as a manager, they just might be a dark horse.