MARCUS Browne’s disputed late effort salvaged a thoroughly deserved point as Oxford United extended their unbeaten run to five games.

Sunderland were closing in on a fortuitous victory, with James Dunne’s header separating the sides.

The title contenders had ridden their luck, with goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin making three superb saves to deny Josh Ruffels, Jamie Mackie and James Henry.

Just as in their stalemate at Burton Albion a week earlier, United’s lack of killer instinct appeared to be costing them dearly, with Jordan Graham also firing a great chance wide.

But with three minutes of the 90 remaining Browne converted Jerome Sinclair’s pass to level the scores, sending the biggest league crowd at the Kassam Stadium for more than two years barmy.

Sunderland complained over what had looked a foul on Dunne in the build-up, but referee Scott Oldham – who had angered the home fans for much of the afternoon – allowed the goal to stand.

And with results elsewhere going their way, the point was enough to lift United out of the Sky Bet League One relegation zone.

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Jamie Mackie replaced Sinclair in the only change to the XI from the goalless draw at Burton.

Sunderland’s strength in depth was shown by the fact Chris Maguire, who had travelled south, did not even make the bench.

Will Grigg, a £4million signing on deadline day, was handed his debut.

The striker scored four goals against the U’s for Wigan Athletic last season and had the ball in the net after just 14 minutes. Fortunately, the offside flag was already up.

United were on the back foot early on, not helped by a spell where they played with ten men while Mackie got treatment on a head injury, but they went on to create three glorious chances.

Josh Ruffels had the first, midway through the half. The full back did everything he would have wanted when he met Cameron Brannagan’s corner, but his firm downward header was blocked on the line by McLaughlin.

The visitors scrambled a clearance, but within seconds United were back in the box. Graham swapped passes with Brannagan to get through on goal, but his curled finish was just the wrong side of the post.

The winger was furious at himself – he knew it was a big moment.

Oxford Mail:

  • Jordan Graham (right) takes on Sunderland's Adam Matthews

United continued to cause problems, with Gavin Whyte embarking on a couple of barnstorming runs down the right.

That flank provided the third big opportunity, on the half-hour mark. Jamie Hanson’s driven cross was perfect for Mackie, whose header from his bandaged head was back across goal, but McLaughlin made a stunning save with his left hand at full stretch.

While Sunderland were fortunate to still be on level terms, they cashed in four minutes later.

When Grant Leadbitter swung a dangerous corner into the six-yard box, Dunne was on hand to power a header into the net.

United’s mood was not helped late in the half when a series of decisions went against them, which saw referee Oldham booed off.

The hosts were fired up and they came roaring out of the traps after the break.

Sunderland were pushed back in a 15-minute spell where the U’s played some excellent football.

Brannagan and Whyte sent shooting chances off target, while the latter was put through by Henry and was only stopped by an excellent challenge from Dunne.

McLaughlin also made a point-blank save from Henry as Sunderland hung on, but United just could not find the killer final touch.

It was beginning to look a forlorn challenge as the visitors ate up time and looked to slow the game down.

But with three minutes remaining, United’s three substitutes combined to level the scores.

Samir Carruthers launched a counter-attack with an excellent ball forward. Dunne looked to have it covered, but after tangling with Jerome Sinclair he was left on the turf.

Sunderland appealed for a foul but the referee allowed play to continue, with Sinclair driving forward and squaring for Browne to tap in.

The visitors were in uproar, both on the pitch and in the stands, but the goal stood.

While United had undoubtedly got the rub of the green, no-one could deny they deserved to go away empty-handed.

Oxford Utd (4-3-3): Eastwood, Hanson, Nelson, Dickie, Ruffels, Mousinho (Carruthers 86), Henry (Browne 73), Brannagan, Whyte, Mackie (Sinclair 63), Graham.

Unused subs: Stevens, Long, Kashi, Sykes.

Booked: Mackie, Mousinho.

Sunderland (4-2-3-1): McLaughlin, Matthews, Baldwin, Dunne, James, Leadbitter, Power, Morgan (Gooch 68), Honeyman, McGeady (Wyke 61), Grigg (O’Nien 79).

Unused subs: Ruiter, Flanagan, McGeouch, Watmore.

Booked: James, Gooch, O'Nien.

Referee: Scott Oldham (Lancashire).

Attendance: 10,383 (1,808 visitors).