LUKE Garbutt and Jerome Sinclair struck second-half goals as ten-man Oxford United claimed a fourth successive victory which should secure their Sky Bet League One status for next season.

The Everton loanee showed a cool head to take a touch in the box and score against struggling Walsall, before Sinclair struck in the final seconds.

Both came right in front of almost 1,500 travelling fans.

It was particularly sweet for the visitors, who had been reduced to ten men on the stroke of half-time.

Marcus Browne was dismissed for an over-the-ball challenge which caught Zeli Ismail, although the decision appeared to be influenced by the Walsall bench, who were a couple of yards away from the incident and protested vehemently.

The score at that stage was 1-1, with Rob Dickie’s opener having been cancelled out by Andy Cook, who exploited a defensive error to equalise.

But Garbutt restored the lead and the ten men showed plenty of grit in the closing stages before substitute Jerome Sinclair struck in the final seconds to seal a hard-fought victory.

In the celebrations it looked as though Ahmed Kashi, who had been taken off, was shown a second yellow card, but the U’s will not worry about that for long – they are up to 52 points which should mean they are safe from relegation with five games still to play.

With Sinclair having missed most of the week’s training, he made way for Jamie Mackie in the only change to the starting line-up.

Sinclair was still fit enough for the bench, where Gavin Whyte returned.

While United’s strong run had seen them open a seven-point cushion on the bottom four, Walsall began the day inside the bottom four.

They looked nervy early on and Nicky Devlin almost conceded a penalty on Cameron Brannagan. in the seventh minute, but referee David Webb awarded a free-kick a whisker outside the box.

United looked dangerous on the break and after good work from Mackie, Luke Garbutt unleashed a swerving 25-yard shot which Liam Roberts parried to safety.

The goalkeeper was involved again on 16 minutes, racing well out of his box to collect a through ball, but he collided with Mackie.

The United skipper stayed down and there was a lengthy stoppage while he was assessed, before the U’s medical staff adjudged he could continue with a heavy bandage round his head.

When play restarted, United opened the scoring with a free-kick from their right. Garbutt’s delivery was to the back post, where Dickie had been left alone to head into the net.

Oxford Mail:

  • Rob Dickie celebrates his first goal of the season

It was a soft goal to give away, but within five minutes United returned the favour.

While Dickie lost out in an aerial challenge, there appeared little danger. But Nelson dithered as he tracked back towards his own goal, apparently waiting for Simon Eastwood to come out.

It was the centre back’s ball to deal with, though, and when he failed to hack the ball out Cook pounced to stab the ball into the net for a cheap equaliser.

The hosts had a big chance to take the lead just before the half-hour mark when a corner ricocheted off Ahmed Kashi and fell to Jon Guthrie, who produced a centre half’s finish when he swivelled and fired over from six yards.

After a brief wobble, United composed themselves.

Another Garbutt set piece led to a chance which Ruffels headed off target, while the Everton loanee’s cross-field pass laid on an opening which Browne fired wide.

The West Ham loanee’s afternoon did not have much longer to run, though.

Deep in the seven minutes added on for stoppages, a loose touch from Browne saw him go over the top of the ball in a bid to keep possession. He caught Zeli Ismail and while it was not a clever challenge, it looked a caution at worst.

But it came right in front of the Walsall bench, who leapt up in protest and after a melee between the two sets of players calmed down, the referee showed a straight red card.

The half-time whistle followed almost immediately, giving the visitors time to reorganise.

They came out in a 4-4-1 system, but had no intention of retreating to the edge of their box and just defending.

Mackie proved adept at holding the ball up and harassing defenders, while James Henry’s desire almost paid off as he charged down a Roberts clearance which sent the ball flashing wide of the goal.

But the visitors’ positive approach reaped dividends just after the hour mark.

A well-worked throw-in deep in Walsall territory got Sam Long in round the back and he fired in a low cross. It fell to Garbutt, who took a touch before ramming a low shot into the net from six yards, sending the away fans behind the goal barmy.

Walsall hit back to pile the pressure on with a flurry of set pieces which tested the United back line.

With 20 minutes remaining Cook was almost gifted a second goal of the afternoon when Brannagan’s back pass from inside the centre circle was under-hit, but Eastwood raced out of his box to get there just in time.

Walsall came on strongly late on, but United survived a nervy spell before Sinclair struck on the break to seal the points.

Kashi and Jordan Graham sprinted off the bench to join in the celebrations. Both were booked for their action and with Kashi already cautioned he was shown the red card to end a hectic game.

Walsall (4-4-2): Roberts, Devlin, Scarr, Guthrie, Leahy, Ismail (Norman 84), Osbourne, Dobson, Blackett-Taylor, Gordon (Ferrier 76), Cook.

Unused subs: Dunn, Edwards, Kinsella, Fitzwater, Oteh.

Booked: Dobson, Gordon.

Oxford Utd (4-2-3-1): Eastwood, Long, Nelson, Dickie, Ruffels, Kashi (Mousinho 83), Brannagan, Browne, Henry (Whyte 77), Garbutt, Mackie (Sinclair 83).

Unused subs: Stevens, Hanson, Sykes, Graham.

Booked: Kashi, Eastwood, Graham.

Sent off: Browne, Kashi.

Referee: David Webb (Lancashire).

Attendance: 6,339 (1,462 visitors).