LIAM Sercombe struck the winner as Oxford United again left it late to claim a victory at home in Sky Bet League One.

United’s only other league success this season came courtesy of a stoppage-time goal and once more it was a close shave.

The midfielder’s close-range finish two minutes from time was the highlight of a poor game against Rochdale which looked destined to end goalless.

Debutant Marvin Johnson came off the bench and immediately began to repay his transfer fee by providing the assist.

The big-money signing should have doubled the lead in the final seconds, but it hardly mattered - the home side were not at their best, but they took a chance to bag a vital three points.

U’s boss Michael Appleton made five changes from the 4-2 midweek win over Exeter City, but deadline-day signing Johnson had to make do with a place on the bench.

There was a debut for Charlie Raglan at centre half, while Joe Skarz was fit enough to return.

The left back was almost at fault for an early goal, as Andy Cannon snuck in behind him at the back post but shot over from Nathaniel Mendez-Laing’s deep cross.

United found Dale a tough side to break down and struggled for any sort of rhythm in a first half shrouded in drizzly rain, not helped by a lack of width.

With Johnson and Alex MacDonald on the bench, Chris Maguire and Joe Rothwell were reluctant wide men and often came looking for the ball in central areas.

It was exacerbated by Dale playing three men in the middle of the park, so attacks from both sides often broke down amid the congestion.

United created two chances in the opening 45 minutes, but otherwise failed to worry the visitors.

A slip at the back allowed Wes Thomas to get in for the opening opportunity, in the 13th minute.

He cut the ball back for Rothwell, whose scuffed shot fell for Kane Hemmings to help the ball on eight yards out, but Dale goalkeeper Conrad Logan made the save.

It was another 20 minutes before the U’s threatened again.

Rothwell’s slide-rule pass sent Thomas away, but the striker appeared to be waiting for Logan to dive in. When the goalkeeper stood tall the striker hurried his shot, which was smothered.

While Dale saw plenty of the ball, Simon Eastwood was only forced into one save.

The U’s goalkeeper got down well to keep out Mendez-Laing’s low 20-yard shot and when the ball squirmed out of his grasp Raglan was well-placed to slide in and deny Steven Davies.

The game was crying out for a change, a feeling which was only strengthened by the sight at half-time of Kemar Roofe, back as a guest of honour.

Appleton unfortunately did not have Roofe to throw on, but he did hand Johnson his debut for the start of the second half, replacing Hemmings.

United switched to a 4-2-3-1 system, which saw Rothwell and John Lundstram operating behind Johnson, Sercombe and Maguire.

Within three minutes lone striker Thomas was put through by Maguire. The striker raced into the box but delayed his shot and ended up falling to the ground, but the referee waved away the penalty appeal.

Johnson almost came up with a debut goal just before the hour mark.

The winger closed down a dawdling Logan, who was very relieved to see the ball rebound straight into his arms.

There was still more than a third of the game to play, but United’s bright start to the half fizzled out.

Rochdale responded and had two great chances to get in front during the closing stages.

Niall Canavan hit the woodwork when a 73rd-minute corner fell his way at the back post.

Substitute Peter Vincenti had an even better chance three minutes from time when he beat the offside trap, but stabbed a shot wide from eight yards as Eastwood raced out.

It looked a great chance to win the game and within 60 seconds United had taken advantage of the let-off.

Johnson burst forward down the left and although Ryan Taylor failed to make meaningful contact with the low cross, Sercombe was stood behind him to poke home from six yards.

Johnson should have doubled the lead deep into stoppage time, when he ran on to Alex MacDonald’s pass, but he could only find the side netting after rounding the goalkeeper.

Oxford Utd: Eastwood, Edwards, Dunkley, Raglan, Skarz, Rothwell (MacDonald 85), Sercombe, Lundstram, Maguire, Thomas (Taylor 69), Hemmings (Johnson HT).

Unused subs: Brown, Long, Ruffels, Crowley.

Rochdale: Logan, Rafferty, Canavan, McGahey, McNulty, Allen, Cannon (McDermott 67), Henderson, Odelusi (Bunney 69), Davies (Vincenti 76), Mendez-Laing.

Unused subs: Lillis, Tanser, Keane, Morley.

Referee: Brendan Malone (Wiltshire).

Attendance: 6,939 (232 visitors).