ALEX Mowatt came off the bench to give Oxford United the hardest-fought of victories at Bristol Rovers.

The midfielder, on loan from Barnsley, stroked home his first goal for the U’s eight minutes from time at the end of a clinical counter attack.

It sealed a third successive victory in Sky Bet League One, lifting them to sixth place.

It proved the difference between the sides in a clash which was as feisty and competitive as these two sides have regularly produced in recent seasons.

Rovers started on top and United had to show plenty of defensive resolve throughout against a side who went long at virtually every opportunity.

United were the more fluent of the teams and had chances, but a draw looked like being the limit of their hopes as the game reached the latter stages.

But Mowatt popped up to turn one point into three, to the delight of the massed ranks of travelling fans.

United were unsurprisingly unchanged from the 3-0 victory against AFC Wimbledon a week earlier.

Both sides came into the game on the back of two successive league wins, but the visitors had to batten down the hatches early on.

The Pirates were direct and dangerous in the air, particularly Rory Gaffney, who pulled wide on to the diminutive Ricardinho at every opportunity for what was a very one-sided duel in the area.

The striker had the ball in the net in the seventh minute, heading in after an unmarked Tom Nichols had flicked on Chris Lines’s cross, but the offside flag was up.

Briefly the game was wide open.

United immediately countered and Joe Rothwell wasted a good chance from ten yards with a weak shot from James Henry’s delivery.

Within seconds, Nichols sprung the offside trap at the other end, but from an acute angle his cross was headed away by Curtis Nelson.

The game was largely being played on Rovers’ terms and Tom Lockyer headed a good chance straight at Simon Eastwood.

It all happened in a breathless opening quarter of an hour, before United were able to get a foothold in the game.

Wes Thomas fired just over from 25 yards, while Jack Payne came agonisingly close with a shot across goal from 18 yards which flew just the wrong side of the far post.

Oxford Mail:

  • Former U's midfielder Liam Sercombe (left) comes under pressure from Ryan Ledson and James Henry

United’s clearest chance of the half came on 28 minutes.

A soft backpass saw Thomas hassle former U’s goalkeeper Sam Slocombe into a hurried clearance, straight to Henry.

The midfielder drove into the penalty area and fired the ball across the six-yard box. Thomas launched himself at the ball, but only made contact with the far post and needed treatment before he could continue.

Payne almost unlocked the door late in the half, robbing Ollie Clarke and darting into the box, but he was closed down well as he shot and could not get any power on the effort.

Rovers hit back in first half stoppage-time, when Lines’s sweetly-struck volley from almost 25 yards fizzed just wide.

The bookings began to mount up in a tetchy start to the second half, where United found space more easily on the ball.

Slocombe saved Ledson’s low drive, while the visitors forced a succession of corners which Rovers defended well.

Payne did put the ball in the net, but the flag was up against Thomas, who had crossed - although United felt the TV cameras showed it should have stood.

The home fans were beginning to get restless, but their side forced themselves back into the game.

Partington curled a shot wide when he should have done better, while Liam Sercombe, who was booed by a section of the packed travelling support on his first appearance since leaving United, lashed off target from range.

Substitute Dominic Telford had a glorious chance when he was put through on goal 12 minutes from time, but a heavy touch let United off the hook as Eastwood slid out to gather the ball.

It looked like Rovers, who had not drawn a league game since February, were favourites to nick a late winner.

But instead United opened the scoring eight minutes from time with a quick break.

Mousinho survived a penalty shout on Byron Moore and as the referee waved away the protests the visitors poured forward.

Henry raced down the right and squared for Rothwell. The midfielder was probably fouled in the box as he helped the ball on, but it fell for Mowatt to stroke home from 15 yards.

It all came in front of the travelling support, who went berserk.

United still had to negotiate almost a quarter of an hour, including stoppage-time, but they wound the clock down very well to keep Rovers out.

Bristol Rov (4-3-3): Slocombe, Partington, Broadbent, Lockyer, Bola, Clarke (Sinclair 55), Sercombe, Lines, Harrison, Gaffney (Moore 67), Nichols (Nichols 75).

Unused subs: Smith, Leadbitter, Brown, Sweeney.

Booked: Clarke, Gaffney, Sercombe.

Oxford Utd (4-4-1-1): Eastwood, Ribeiro, Nelson, Mousinho, Ricardinho, Henry, Ledson, Ruffels, Rothwell (Xemi 83), Payne (Mowatt 70), Thomas (Roberts 90).

Unused subs: Shearer, Williamson, Martin, Carroll.

Booked: Henry, Mousinho, Ribeiro, Rothwell.

Referee: Ross Joyce (Cleveland).

Attendance: 9,656 (1,244 visitors).