Dion Charles earned himself a footnote in Wanderers’ record books as his 20th goal of the season gave Wanderers another priceless win in their play-off push.
Charles became the first Wanderers’ player since Michael Ricketts in the 2000/01 season to reach the landmark as his early goal was enough for the Whites to make it back-to-back away victories and lift them back up to fifth in the table with five games to go.
However, if Charles was the headline act, there were warriors all over the pitch as Ian Evatt’s injury-hit side again dug deep into their reserves to get the job done.
Having led from the seventh minute, Wanderers had to repel a growing threat from an Oxford side battling to beat the drop.
The second half was played largely in the Whites’ half as Evatt’s men ceded territory but not chances.
And with another re-shuffled back line, including MJ Williams as an outstanding defensive stand-in, keeping a remarkable 20th clean sheet of the campaign, Wanderers did what they had to secure the points that edged them nearer a top-six finish and a crack at the play-offs.
Wanderers’ injury problems, which included the additon of Luke Mbete and Kieran Lee, and the chance to bring back some of those rested from the start for the Bank Holiday Monday draw with Cambridge meant five changes in the starting line-up.
Most notable amongst them was a first start since the end of December for Williams, who was asked to fill in as a central defender in a role the midfielder hadn’t reprised since his Rochdale days.
Not surprisingly, he embraced the challenge and as well as help keep things tight at the back also triggered a number of Wanderers’ attacking moves with his delivery from deep.
Wanderers went noticeably more direct at times to unsettle the U’s defence with Dan Nlundulu a willing target alongside Charles.
But when Wanderers did go in front early on through Charles’ landmark goal it was through a typically tidy build-up down the right-hand side which ended with Conor Bradley bursting into the box.
His low cross was parried clear by goalkeeper Simon Eastwood but only as far as the predatory Charles, who pounced with a shot on the turn to drill the ball home from 10 yards to bridge a 22-year gap.
That gave Wanderers just the start they needed as they looked to hand the U’s a first defeat in five games under manager Liam Manning and extend their winless run to 15 matches.
For half an hour it looked fairly comfortable but Oxford were never likely to go down without a fight in their quest to try and stay clear of the relegation zone.
And the U’s did crank up the pressure before the break, notably from set-pieces with James Trafford and Williams both going into the book for fouls just outside the penalty area, Trafford leaving his goal to catch Kyle Joseph after the U’s frontman had got to the ball first.
Oxford maintained the momentum after the break with a relieved Trafford having to beat away a piledriver from advancing defender Ciaron Brown.
And with Wanderers unable to keep the ball for any length of time they had to withstand growing pressure.
Joseph just failed to get a touch from Sam Long’s driven cross in front of goal before Marcus Browne dragged an effort wide as the U’s pressed for a leveller.
But Wanderers managed to hang on and with 20 minutes to go had a chance to double their lead and find clear water.
Their best move of the half ended with substitute Victor Adeboyejo teeing up Kyle Dempsey but the midfielder couldn’t keep his effort down as he fired over the bar.
Adeboyejo was ploughing a lone furrow up front as Wanderers kept as many men as possible behind the ball to try and see it out with Evatt sending on further fresh legs as the clock ticked down.
It was tough going at times as the U’s kept knocking on the door and peppering the penalty.
But Wanderers showed determination and desire in bucket-fulls to protect their goal and make sure there would be no late lapse this time around.
And with those in blue refusing to budge, the Whites stood firm to extend their unbeaten league run to four games at just the right time as they also capitalised on results elsewhere to tighten their grip on a play-off spot.
Wanderers: Trafford; Jones, MJ Williams, Johnston; Bradley, Morley (Thomason 79), Sheehan (Shoretire 79), John; Dempsey; Charles (Adeboyejo 65), Nlundulu (Kachunga 57). Substitutes: Dixon, R Williams,
Booked: Trafford, MJ Williams, Kachunga, Johnston, Sheehan.
Oxford United: Eastwood; Moore, Findlay, Brown; Long (Anderson 86), McGuane, Brannagan, Fleming (O’Donkor 57); Murphy (Goodrham HT), Browne (Wildschut 72); Joseph. Substitutes: McGinty, Smyth, Smith
Booked: Murphy, O’Donkor
Referee: Sebastian Stockbridge