IT had to happen sometime, but Oxford United’s unbeaten run of eight matches should not have ended at the Priestfield Stadium on Saturday.

Chris Wilder’s men dominated possession and created countless opportunities, but were unable to find a way through against Gillingham, who finished the game with nine men after two red cards.

In the end, it took a wonder strike from Lewis Montrose, who would later see red for an horrendous challenge on Asa Hall, to separate the two sides.

The goal, while an excellent strike, came while United were temporarily down to ten men with Deane Smalley off the field receiving treatment for a head injury.

Smalley came in to replace leading scorer James Constable, who was named on the substitute’s bench, while Robbie Hall returned to the starting line-up after being on the bench in last week’s 1-1 draw at Macclesfield, with Andy Haworth out injured.

In the cold light of day, the stats showed that Oxford should have got at least something from this game, but found the Gills in resolute mood, with keeper Ross Flitney impressing with a string of fine saves.

United had an early penalty appeal waved away as Alfie Potter, who caused the home side problems all afternoon, went down under a challenge in the box, and the visitors made all the early running.

Potter then drilled an effort from the right edge of the penalty area across the face of Flitney’s goal inside the first ten minutes.

Moments later, Simon Heslop rode the challenge of Montrose in midfield, but his effort was struck wide of Flitney’s right-hand post.

At the other end, Ryan Clarke was called upon for the first time to deny Frank Nouble.

Clarke was again in action when Luke Rooney’s speculative strike from 30 yards was well held by the U’s keeper.

Damian Batt and Potter were combining well down the right flank, and one such move ended with Potter’s cross finding Smalley in the centre of the penalty area, but his header was gathered by Flitney.

It had not been a difficult game for referee Gavin Ward to control in the early stages, but in the 19th minute, Batt was unceremoniously bundled to the floor by a reckless Joe Martin challenge.

The Gillingham defender was rightly booked, but United spurned the chance from the free-kick as Potter’s effort from Paul McLaren’s right-footed delivery was scrambled clear.

United were having a purple patch. Hall brilliantly dispossessed Garry Richards on the left, but his shot was beaten out by Flitney.

Lively Gills’ striker Jo Kuffour was looking a constant threat with a number of forays into the visitors’ box.

He drew a foul from Mc-Laren, who was booked for his efforts, and from another darting run, he was adjudged to have been brought down on the left edge of the box, but Rooney’s free-kick flashed wide of the goal.

Kuffour again worked himself into a good position just inside United’s box after bringing down a high through ball, but skipper Jake Wright made a superbly-timed tackle.

Back came United.

Peter Leven’s dink over the top found Liam Davis, who drilled in a cross-shot.

Potter did superbly to win a ball from Martin, but his cross to Leven saw the United man denied by another smart save by Flitney low down.

Flitney was again called upon to deny Robbie Hall.

But the game was turned on its head when Smalley was forced to leave the field for stitches to a head injury.

With United down to ten men, Gillingham took advantage.

Clarke parried a Kuffour strike, but as the ball was cleared to Montrose, the Gillingham midfielder took one touch before hammering the ball past the outstretched right hand of Clarke into the top corner from 25 yards.

Gillingham were reduced to ten men early in the second half.

Martin recklessly brought down Robbie Hall right under the nose of referee Ward, who had no hesitation in brandishing Martin a second yellow card, and the inevitable red.

Leven laid the resulting free-kick off to Batt, who fired a 30-yard strike wide.

Heslop should have levelled from eight yards when his strike on the half volley was superbly saved by Flitney.

Heslop was replaced by Constable, but United could not find a breakthrough.

Flitney again came to Gillingham’s rescue, beating out Robbie Hall’s close-range effort.

United created yet another chance as Constable worked his way into the box.

Pulling the ball back to Potter, the United forward was once again thwarted, this time at point-blank range by Gills’ skipper Matt Lawrence.

Danny Philliskirk, signed on loan from Sheffield United on Friday, came on for Smalley, and was almost immediately in the referee’s notebook for a cynical block.

With three minutes left, Montrose blotted his copybook with a nasty foul on substitute Asa Hall, which earned an immediate red card.

Against nine men, United attacked desperately in search of the equaliser.

Potter missed a golden opportunity, drilling a shot straight at Flitney, while Constable wasted a big chance in stoppage time when he lobbed wide of the right-hand post when through one-on-one against Flitney.