A NIGHTMARE first half gave Oxford United too much to do despite a valiant fightback in their clash with promotion rivals Rotherham United.

Marcus Browne was on target in the first game of his second spell, while Matty Taylor missed a great chance to set up a grandstand finish.

But the hosts had given themselves a mountain to climb, having slipped 3-0 down before the break.

Rotherham made a mockery of the U’s defensive record at the Kassam Stadium, where they had not conceded a league goal since August.

Kyle Vassell made the most of some poor defending to score twice, while Richard Wood’s header seconds before the interval gave the Millers a commanding lead.

United looked much more like themselves in the second half, but fell short of the miracle required to take something from the game.

They will hope to start far better on Tuesday night, when Ipswich Town visit.

New recruits Browne, Nathan Holland and Liam Kelly all had to make do with a place on the bench as Robinson largely kept faith with the side which had beaten Hartlepool in the FA Cup a week earlier.

The two changes saw Simon Eastwood and Cameron Brannagan return from knee injuries.

Both sides began the game in the top four and there was a suitable intensity about the contest in the opening exchanges, where space was at a premium.

Rotherham came with a plan to press their hosts and then counter-attack when they got the ball.

From one such break Vassell threatened in the eighth minute, where he was taken down by Alex Gorrin for a booking.

The striker, who scored once for United in a 2015 loan spell, was though celebrating after 16 minutes.

Chiedoze Ogbene got away from Brannagan, who looked rusty on his return, and crossed low. Eastwood appeared to totally lose his bearings, moving to his right presumably thinking the ball would go loose, but Vassell reached it and tapped into the gaping net.

United’s best moment of the half came five minutes later, when Millers goalkeeper Daniel Iversen tipped Josh Ruffels’s header round the post at a corner.

The hosts though looked totally rattled after falling behind.

They were hassled into simple mistakes all over the pitch, as teammates suddenly found themselves on different wavelengths.

Everywhere they looked was a wall of white shirts and Rotherham’s physical approach was permitted by referee David Webb.

On 33 minutes Rotherham were celebrating a second goal, which was even simpler than their opener.

Dan Barlaser’s ball over the top allowed Vassell to show his power, holding off Rob Dickie before lobbing a stranded Eastwood.

United’s muddled half was summed up when Gorrin and Ruffels went for the same ball and collided. The left back came off worse, needing a bandage to his head.

In the time added on for the stoppage, Rotherham rubbed salt in the wounds.

Moore failed to clear a corner and Vassell this time turned provider with an inviting cross to the back post, where Wood headed across into the far corner.

The game had been played on Rotherham’s terms and Robinson, who had watched the game from the back of the South Stand due to a touchline ban, responded at the break.

Gorrin and Brannagan were withdrawn in favour of new loan signings Browne and Holland.

The pair quickly got into the game as United briefly pinned back Rotherham at the start of the second half.

It came to nothing, but the contest was much more even.

The Millers looked to slow the game down, but the home fans were given hope 19 minutes from time.

Mark Sykes did well near the corner flag and although substitute Taylor could not convert at the near post, the ball fell for Browne to emphatically volley into the net from ten yards.

Within four minutes a weak backpass from Ben Wiles presented a glorious chance to Taylor, but the striker shot wide.

While United continued to push, they were unable to carve out another chance as clear and Rotherham claimed the points to go top of the league.

Oxford Utd (4-3-3): Eastwood, Long, Dickie, Moore, Ruffels, Gorrin (Browne HT), Brannagan (Holland HT), Baptiste, Sykes, Mackie (Taylor 60), Fosu.

Unused subs: Stevens, Mousinho, Kelly, Hall.

Booked: Gorrin, Long.

Rotherham Utd (4-4-2): Iversen, Wiles, Ihiekwe, Wood, Olosunde, Ogbene, Crooks, Barlaser (Clarke 90), Adelakun (Lindsay 72), Vassell (Ladapo 76), Smith.

Unused subs: Bilboe, Hastie, Lamy, Kayode.

Booked: Wiles, Lindsay.

Referee: David Webb (Lancashire).

Attendance: 8,077 (894 visitors).