BATTLING Oxford United were undone on the final day of the season by former loanee Jack Payne as the substitute struck the winner for Championship-bound Blackburn Rovers.

The Huddersfield Town attacker played the first half of the season with the U’s, before switching to the Lancashire club in January.

Payne had not scored for Rovers, but broke his duck just two minutes after coming off the bench by firing a shot which deflected into the net.

It reignited the noisy home crowd at a packed Ewood Park, which had been quietened down by James Henry’s equaliser midway through the second half.

The neat finish, which saw the midfielder finish level on 11 goals with Wes Thomas as United’s top-scorer, came against the run of play.

Darragh Lenihan had headed Rovers into an early lead and the chances flowed easily for the hosts, who were already assured of automatic promotion.

But United dug in and Simon Eastwood excelled against his former side, saving Charlie Mulgrew’s 41st-minute penalty.

It kept the visitors in the game, but frustratingly they could not hold on for a confidence-boosting point to take into the summer break.

United’s XI showed three changes from the side which started the 2-1 win against Rochdale a week earlier.

Curtis Nelson, Henry and Malachi Napa were promoted, while Ryan Ledson – believed to be on the verge of joining Preston North End – was surprisingly included on the bench.

He took his place alongside teenagers Albie Hopkins and Owen James, who were named in the matchday squad for the first time.

The visitors made a bright start in the Lancashire sunshine, with Cameron Brannagan firing a left-footed shot just wide from 20 yards inside the opening minute.

They also quickly forced a corner, before Rovers hit their stride.

Lenihan opened the scoring with virtually their first serious effort on goal, in the 12th minute.

Mulgrew swung in a free-kick from 40 yards out which found the forehead of his central defensive partner, who powered the ball past Eastwood from ten yards.

Todd Kane forced Blackburn goalkeeper David Raya into a save with a shot from an acute angle seconds later, before Rovers really took charge.

Their front four of Danny Graham, Elliott Bennett, Adam Armstrong and Dominic Samuel caused United all sorts of problems with their clever movement.

The visitors could not keep hold of the ball and midway through the half a pass from Nelson was picked off. Armstrong burst into the box and fired in a shot which looked destined for the far corner, but Rob Dickie diverted the ball over at full stretch.

There was more last-ditch defending just after the half hour mark. Dickie’s clearing header was weak and Corry Evans surged into the danger zone, but his cross was hacked away by Todd Kane.

United hit back with a brief spell which saw Brannagan’s shot from the edge of the box deflected over.

The former Liverpool midfielder’s corner to the back post was met by John Mousinho, but Raya clung on at the second attempt.

At the other end, Eastwood had received a warm welcome from the home fans on his first return since leaving Ewood Park for the U’s two years ago.

The goalkeeper showed a classy touch with his thigh to cut out a through ball for Samuel.

But five minutes before half-time his next attempt at intercepting a pass ended with him up-ending Bennett, who had latched on to Graham’s clever flick and beaten Kane.

Mulgrew had scored a penalty in Rovers’ 4-2 win at the Kassam Stadium in November, but when he tried to pick out the same spot, Eastwood was equal to it and parried the ball wide.

It kept United just in the game at the break and they needed him again shortly after the restart, turning Bennett’s 25-yarder round the post.

The hosts were dominating, but while the scoreline stayed 1-0 the result was in doubt.

United responded with a good spell leading up to the hour mark, but clear chances were tough to forge and Napa had two shots superbly blocked by the Rovers rearguard.

It did not yield an opportunity as clear as Samuel’s on 65 minutes, but after being played through his rasping drive was parried by Eastwood.

Within a minute, United’s fans in the upper tier at the other end were celebrating an equaliser.

The danger appeared to have been snuffed out when a counter-attack ended with Obika having a shot blocked. But the striker rescued the loose ball and played in Josh Ruffels, whose low cross was swept by Henry just inside the far post.

Eastwood saved twice from Armstrong, who should have done better with the first chance, as Rovers searched for a response.

It came via the bench, with Payne restoring the Rovers lead two minutes after coming on with a deflected effort.

Ewood Park was quickly celebrating a third when Graham bundled in a Samuel cross, but in the deafening roar the home fans had not heard the referee’s whistle ruling it out for a push by the striker.

There was time for James, 17, to make his debut as United went in search of another equaliser, but they came up short against a strong side heading for the second tier.

The game was held up in stoppage-time by a premature pitch invasion by thousands of supporters, forcing the players off.

In the melee U's boss Karl Robinson ended up grabbing one abusive Rovers supporter by the throat before stewards regained control.

It got a cheer of approval from the home fans who had stayed in their seats and belatedly five minutes later the game restarted for two seconds so the referee ould blow the full-time whistle.

Blackburn Rov (4-2-3-1): Raya, Nyambe, Lenihan, Mulgrew, Williams (Bell 74), Smallwood (Payne 74), Evans, Armstrong (Antonsson 77), Samuel, Bennett, Graham.

Unused subs: Leutwiler, Whittingham, Downing, Travis.

Booked: None.

Oxford Utd (4-4-1-1): Eastwood, Kane, Dickie, Nelson, Ruffels, Napa, Brannagan, Mousinho (Ledson 55), Rothwell (Ricardinho 68), Henry, Obika (James 83).

Unused subs: Shearer, Long, Hopkins, Mowatt.

Booked: Eastwood, Rothwell.

Referee: Carl Boyeson (East Yorkshire).

Attendance: 27,600 (1,290 visitors).