The Iron moved joint-top of League Two with a determined 2-0 victory over promotion rivals Oxford United at the Kassam Stadium.
A well-placed header from Deon Burton gave United a first-half lead arguably against the run of play, with Burton also seeing his penalty finely saved by Oxford goalkeeper Ryan Clarke just before half-time.
The visitors improved after the interval, and deservedly doubled their lead through David Syers – before Sam Slocombe matched Clarke by producing a stunning save to deny Deane Smalley from the spot late on.
Iron boss Russ Wilcox was forced into a solitary change from the team which drew 2-2 away at Bury on Boxing Day, with Sam Winnall’s suspension offering a chance for Hakeeb Adelakun to impress from the start in an attacking role alongside Burton. Meanwhile, United made three changes to their bench with Michael Collins, Matt Sparrow and Jamie Wootton taking duties over from the promoted Adelakun, Andrew Boyce and the injured Matt Godden respectively.
Similarly, Oxford manager Chris Wilder made just one alteration from the side which slipped to a 3-2 home defeat to Plymouth Argyle three days ago, with Smalley replacing the suspended Dave Kitson in attack.
The absence of Kitson also allowed youngster Callum O’Dowda to take a place on the bench, having made just one previous career first team appearance.
The opening 10 minutes of the encounter saw each team look to keep control of possession with neat passing in midfield, but it was Oxford who initially made the most progress up the field. The Iron defence were alert to the danger at all times however, with David Mirfin timing a tackle in the penalty-area on Ryan Williams perfectly in the eighth minute after the Oxford winger had worked his way forward.
Despite having less of the ball than their opponents, it would be United who took the lead just two minutes later when a marauding run down the left from Marcus Williams presented the opportunity to deliver a ball into the area. The pin-point cross found Deon Burton totally unmarked on the penalty-spot, and the experienced frontman duly obliged by placing a firm header into Clarke’s bottom right-hand corner to give his side the lead.
The U’s looked to respond immediately, and when a free-kick from the right wasn’t sufficiently cleared on 13 minutes Sean Rigg was able to fire an effort at goal on the bounce. However, Rigg never got the attempt fully under control in the middle of a packed 18-yard-box, and instead blazed over the bar. Five minutes later, Slocombe was quick off his line to rush out and clear the danger after Smalley had flicked the ball on before looking to race past the Iron back-line as the game slipped into a relative lull.
Following a prolonged episode of play in midfield, the home side looked to break in the 25th minute when a combination of Sean McAllister and Syers conceded possession on halfway. The hosts moved down the right, but a cut-back across the area from deep was read well by Canavan who cleared the danger. Despite that disappointment, Oxford continued to press forward in search of an equaliser, and forced a run of set-pieces down the left – all of which eventually amounted to nothing courtesy of some resolute Iron defending.
The home team were beginning to dictate proceedings, and came even closer to levelling in the 31st minute when tidy interplay in midfield brought the ball to the feet of the dangerous Rigg. The winger brought the ball inside, leaving two Iron defenders in his wake in the process, but was only able to send a tame effort straight at Slocombe from the edge of the area having been crowded out by those in claret and blue.
The visiting side were beginning to feel the pressure created by their inability to hold the ball in midfield, and as the game moved into the final 10 minutes of the first-half it was only the commitment of an outstanding David Mirfin which preserved their lead. First, Mirfin calmly dealt with a ball over the top to carry out of defence, before somehow denying James Constable deep in the penalty-area with a superb tackle when a goal seemed inevitable.
That served as a wake-up call for United, who mounted their first meaningful attack for some time soon after; Hawkridge bursting through midfield in the 37th minute before seeing his deflected effort wide of goal. From the resultant corner, Smalley was adjudged to have handled the in-swinging delivery, with referee Andrew Madley pointing to the spot and booking the striker for his troubles. Penalty duties laid at the feet of Burton, but he could only watch as his firm effort low to the keeper’s right was expertly palmed away by Clarke much to the delight of the home support.
In missing the opportunity to double their lead, United found themselves up against an increasingly buoyant Oxford as they poured forward in the lead-up to the interval. They came close to levelling as the game moved towards two minutes of additional time indicated at the end of the first-half, but Johnny Mullins could only plant his header into the side-netting from close-range in the last action of the opening period.
At the break, Russ Wilcox opted to make a tactical switch by bringing on Michael Collins in place of Adelakun and tweaking his formation slightly by pushing Syers into a more advanced central position alongside front-man Burton. The change immediately gave United more bite in midfield, having arguably been second-best in that department for considerable periods of the opening half.
Equally, the substitution was paying dividends further up the field with the newly-created attack linking up nicely in the opening 10 minutes of the second half. On 55 minutes both Burton and Syers were involved in the build-up as the Iron forced a corner down their left. The first in-swinging delivery from Hawkridge was cleared behind, but the second found Mirfin who sent a first-time left-footed volley over from the edge of the six-yard-box.
The home side then responded by making their first change of the afternoon on 57 minutes, introducing O’Dowda in place of Rigg. That alteration was immediately followed by Christian Ribeiro making a determined run down the left flank, but he could only blast into the side-netting having worked his way into the area. Not to be outdone, Eddie Nolan then matched his efforts on the left side before sending in a teasing cross which just eluded the onrushing Burton as United looked to firm up their advantage.
Oxford themselves were determined to find a goal, and a quick passing moved in the final-third gave Asa Hall the chance to test Slocombe from distance with the visiting goalkeeper reacting smartly to palm away.
From the rebound, United looked to counter immediately, and United’s Clarke was forced into similar action barely seconds later when Williams’ lofted diagonal found Hawkridge in space on the right – the winger cutting inside before testing the Oxford ‘keeper with a stinging left-footed drive.
The visitors would have an even better chance to double their advantage on 64 minutes, when determined work from Hawkridge saw the ball break into the path of Burton with the forward free of the Oxford defence and with a clear sight of goal. Burton calmly approached the goalkeeper and appeared to have picked his spot perfectly, but his delicately clipped finish ended sailing wide of goal. That led to Oxford making their second change of the afternoon, bringing on Josh Ruffels in place of Danny Rose.
On 70 minutes, referee Madley played an excellent advantage following a foul on McAllister on halfway, allowing Nolan to progress up the pitch. Nolan jinked inside, only to see his fierce effort blocked by the Oxford defence; the rebound falling to Syers who himself could only fire into the back of the advanced Nolan as the game became increasingly stretched. Next to cause problems was Marcus Williams, who burst down the left before seeing his low cross dived on by Clarke.
The Iron would not have long to wait to finally double their lead however, when disastrous Oxford defending saw the ball sliced deep over their last line of defence by Mullins. Quickest to react to the situation was Syers, who raced onto the ball before nonchalantly lofting the ball over the onrushing Clarke into the unguarded net from 20 yards to give his side a crucial second goal on 72 minutes.
Once again, Oxford looked to respond and a driving run down the right flank from Williams preceded a flashed effort across the goal which Slocombe was forced to punch clear from danger. Williams was involved again almost instantly, forcing a corner after his cross from deep on the right was blocked behind – only for the set-piece to be headed over by Smalley.
Having survived that scare, United looked to have weathered the greatest storm the home side could whip up, only to then see Oxford navigate a potential way back into the game out of nothing in the 82nd minute. A seemingly innocuous long ball was doggedly chased down by Constable, who robbed Canavan in the penalty-area before rounding Slocombe – with the Iron goalkeeper adjudged to have clipped his ankles, leading to a penalty being awarded in addition to a yellow card being administered. Smalley, who had earlier given away a penalty of his own, stepped up to take the spot-kick but saw Slocombe immediately atone for his error and match the heroics of Clarke by pulling off another superb stop at full-stretch to his right.
The brilliance of Slocombe was the clearest indicator yet this was to be the Iron’s day, with Oxford looking increasingly resigned to their fate despite a late flurry of attacks as the game edged towards injury time – with the United goal living something of a charmed life as a Ryan Williams shot deflected wide. The stoppage in play marked an opportunity for Oxford to make their final change of the match, with the injured Ruffels – a substitute himself – replaced by Scott Davies in the first of three additional minutes.
That marked the last action for game, with referee Madley blowing for time soon after. The win lifted the Iron to joint-top of League Two for the first time, thanks in part to Chesterfield being held at home by Dagenham & Redbridge, and completed a run of five wins and two draws under the guidance of manager Russ Wilcox.