CONOR Wilkinson grabbed a late equaliser as Oxford United were held at Gillingham in a scrappy contest on Boxing Day.

While the disappointment at not taking three points was palpable, this was at least a massive improvement from the 7-0 hiding United had suffered on Saturday.

A much-changed side switched to 4-4-2 and produced a hard-working display which looked like it may be enough to see off a limited Gills side.

Ricardinho’s deflected shot early in the second half put them in front, but they could not kill off the game.

It allowed Gillingham to build the pressure late on and Wilkinson’s 87th-minute effort from close range shared the spoils.

Boss Pep Clotet’s response to the Wigan debacle was to make six changes and alter the formation.

Starting for the first time with a 4-4-2 system, he brought in Jon Obika to play up with Wes Thomas, while Gino van Kessel started his first league game since September.

The minimum requirement in the wake of Saturday was a committed display and United duly delivered with a hard-working performance.

They were noticeably more direct than normal, looking for balls into the channels for the front two to chase.

It meant they saw less of the ball than they typically managed, but it did keep errors in their own half to a minimum.

Gillingham adopted a similar tactic, which made for a first half where quality football was at a premium.

It took 17 minutes for the game’s first chance, but Tom Eaves could not get on the end of Luke O’Neill’s low cross which flashed across the six-yard box.

Joe Rothwell, who had added energy to United’s midfield, was the first to test goalkeeper Tomas Holy, who parried the 20-yard shot after a sharp turn had left O’Neill on the floor.

United’s clearest chance of the half came just before the half-hour mark.

Gillingham were unhappy with Ledson’s aggressive challenge on Sean Clare near the halfway line, but referee Nicholas Kinseley waved play on.

Rothwell drove forward and found Thomas in the box, but the striker could not control the bouncing ball with his back to goal and ended up flicking it up for Van Kessel to fire over.

United then had to survive a flurry of corners, but they put bodies in harm’s way time and again, with Ledson in particular making one excellent block to deny a shot on target.

They were not as effective at the other end, though.

A quick throw found Obika goal-side of his marker in the box late in the half, but with Thomas and Van Kessel arriving to offer assistance the striker picked out a defender with his pass.

Simon Eastwood had had a relatively quiet half compared to the weekend, but needed to make a sharp save on the stroke of half-time to keep out Eaves’s flicked header.

United had steadied the ship, now they got a stroke of fortune.

Seven minutes after the restart Obika laid off to Ricardinho on the edge of the penalty area and although the shot was not sweetly-struck, a deflection diverted the ball to nestle in the far corner beyond Holy’s grasp.

United had the lead they craved – and the home fans grew increasingly restless at their side’s attempts to get back into the game.

A smattering of boos rang round Priestfield when one set piece failed to beat the first man, prompting Gills boss Steve Lovell to make a double change.

Jack Payne also came on as the visitors looked to take advantage of spaces on the break, but aside from one run and shot from Rothwell which Holy saved, chances were at a premium.

In that context Thomas’s chance 12 minutes from time was a golden one. The striker looked offside from Ledson’s pass, but the flag stayed down for him to tamely chip into Holy’s arms.

United were increasingly trying to run down the clock rather than carrying a threat.

And three minutes from time the Gills forced an equaliser from a corner. Eastwood kept out Elliott List’s header, but on the rebound Wilkinson smashed into the net from four yards.

With five minutes added on there was time for a winner, but a vital interception by Aaron Martin in the final seconds kept the hosts out.

Gillingham (4-2-3-1): Holy, O’Neill, Ehmer, Zakuani, Ogilvie, Hessenthaler, Byrne (List 80), Martin (Wilkinson 68), Clare, Parker, Eaves (Cundle 68).

Unused subs: Nelson, Lacey, Nugent, Oldaker.

Booked: None.

Oxford Utd (4-4-2): Eastwood, Carroll, Martin, Mousinho, Ricardinho, Van Kessel (Payne 61), Ledson, Ruffels, Rothwell, Obika, Thomas (Henry 82).

Unused subs: Shearer, Tiendalli, Williamson, Xemi, Mowatt.

Booked: Ledson, Payne, Ricardinho, Carroll.

Referee: Nicholas Kinseley (Essex).

Attendance: 5,555 (440 visitors).