OXFORD United were dragged back towards the relegation battle as they stumbled to a desperately poor defeat at home to the Football League's bottom side. Both goals came via similar routes, as Ryan Bird and Neil Austin reacted quickest to parries from Ryan Clarke, the latter from a penalty save, boosting Hartlepool's hopes of staging a great escape. United had the majority of efforts on goal and set pieces, but were again found wanting when it really mattered. The closest they came was a header from Callum O'Dowda which struck the woodwork before the break. And despite a 56-minute second half due to an injury to referee Patrick Miller, they could not muster even a consolation. United head coach Michael Appleton kept faith with the same XI which began Saturday's goalless draw with Plymouth Argyle. The home fans had been kept waiting for shots on goal at the weekend, but Pools goalkeeper Scott Flinders had two saves to make inside the opening four minutes. He dealt with a low shot from Josh Ruffels, before Kemar Roofe headed goalwards after a cross from Callum O'Dowda. The encouraging start quickly petered out, though, as the basement boys got a grip on the game. Nicky Featherstone fired a warning shot when he ghosted in unnoticed from a throw-in to rattle the outside of Clarke's left-hand post from an acute angle. United's goalkeeper also had to tip over a rising drive from Brad Walker, as Pools grew into the game. The visitors were helped by a couple of favourable decisions from referee Miller, in particular with the award of a free-kick to Scott Harrison, who tripped on the uneven playing surface. The official did wave away a penalty shout when Jonathan Franks went down as he went past Joe Skarz, though. Within two minutes the pair were together again. This time Franks beat the left back to get into the box and although his shot was parried by Clarke, the ball fell for Bird to lash home. United's best response before half-time came from O'Dowda, who saw a header strike the woodwork after a weak punch from Flinders. Their task grew tougher seven minutes after the restart, when Mullins was adjudged to have handled the ball. It was harsh on the centre back, as the ball bounced up and hit his hand, but even after a lengthy discussion with one of his assistants, Miller awarded the spot kick. Clarke dived to his left to deny Bird, but Austin reached the ball first to double the lead. United's fans chanted for James Roberts to come on and they did not have long to wait, with Callum O'Dowda making way just after the hour. Hartlepool sat deep with their two-goal lead, inviting United forward. They increased the pressure, but the visitors threw bodies on the line to retain the cushion. United's rhythm was not helped by a lengthy stoppage for treatment to Miller, who had to be stretchered off. It led to nine minutes of stoppage time being added on, but even that was not enough time for the home side, who are now looking over their shoulders again. Oxford Utd (4-4-2): Clarke, Baldock, Mullins, Wright, Skarz, MacDonald, Collins, Ruffels, O'Dowda, Roofe, Hoban. Subs used: Roberts (O'Dowda 62), Gnanduillet (MacDonald 86). Unused subs: Ashdown, Dunkley, Long, Rose, Rasulo. Booked: MacDonald, Baldock, Gnanduillet. Hartlepool (3-5-2): Flinders, Austin, Mirfin, Harrison, D Jones, Duckworth, Featherstone, Walker, Tshibola, Franks, Bird (Harewood 80). Unused subs: Maxted, Holden, Richards, Hawkins, Nelson-Addy, Smith. Booked: Featherstone. Referee: Patrick Miller (Bedfordshire). Attendance: 4,375 (102 visitors).