Were it not for Nikki Bull, Wycombe Wanderers would have tasted defeat in each of their last two league matches. After keeping a clean sheet at Stockport County last weekend he followed that up with an outstanding performance to keep Oxford United at bay.
Manager Gary Waddock sprung a surprise by selecting in-demand winger Matt Phillips ahead of Gareth Ainsworth, who was expected to start in his 500th career appearance. Central defender Dave Winfield returned from a hamstring strain with Leon Johnson dropping to the bench.
The Chairboys lined-up as follows: (4-4-2)
Danny Foster – Alan Bennett – Dave Winfield – Andy Sandell
Matt Phillips – Lewis Montrose – Matt Bloomfield – Kevin Betsy
Ben Strevens – Jon-Paul Pittman
The Oxford United line-up was: (4-3-3) Ryan Clarke – Damien Batt, Harry Worley, Jake Wright, Anthony Tonkin – Simon Heslop, Dannie Bulman, Asa Hall – James Constable, Jack Midson, Matt Green.
Before the start there was an impeccably observed minute’s silence for John Goldsworthy who passed away last Sunday, aged 90. It deserves mentioning that Oxford United fans were a credit to their club and earned respect for their dignified observance. It was a fitting tribute to a man who gave so much to both Wycombe Wanderers and the game of football.
The first half was a turgid affair not helped by a number of stoppages for injuries. Alan Bennett lasted just seven minutes before being replaced by Leon Johnson. He appeared to have pulled his hamstring. Visiting defender Damien Batt also had to be replaced after 11 minutes, Ben Purkiss taking his place at right-back.
Neither side really threatened to break the deadlock with both defences on top. Matt Phillips wasted a chance from a tight angle after six minutes and Dave Winfield hit the side-netting from Andy Sandell’s cross. Asa Hall and Simon Heslop couldn’t find the target for the visitors and with seven minutes of the half remaining Kevin Betsy flashed a shot over the bar. It was a competitive but underwhelming first period for the 6,983 crowd.
The second half started in explosive fashion when the home defence went AWOL and Matt Green raced down the centre and in on goal only to smash his shot against the underside of the bar with the re-bound being fired wide. It was a sign of things to come as the Wanderers conceded both territory and possession to the league new boys.
Four minutes later Nikki Bull pulled off the first of many great saves. A cross from the right was allowed to reach James Constable at the far post and he spun on the six yard line to turn the ball towards the bottom corner of the net only for Bull to somehow get across and push the ball away.
The entertainment value had increased but it didn’t make particularly great viewing for the home fans. Fortunately, with the U’s upping the ante the home side had to come up with a response and for a short while the game became a little stretched and the Chairboys created chances of their own.
They really should have taken the lead on 53 minutes when Kevin Betsy raced clear of the last defender and with just Ryan Clarke to beat chose to attempt a difficult chip from distance and lifted the ball over the bar. It was symptomatic of the home performance in general. None of the players seemed content to do the simple thing and none of the flicks and tricks came off. They even seemed to find playing simple passes to a team-mate too difficult.
When the Blues did manage to play a few passes the ball always seemed to go through Lewis Montrose in the middle of the park and his substitution on 57 minutes ended any fluidity. Gareth Ainsworth came on to replace him with Betsy moving into the middle. Despite decent performances from both Montrose and Bloomfield they were outnumbered and out-battled by Oxford’s midfield trio of Heslop, Bulman and Hall. Both full-backs were out-of-sorts and were consistently put on the back foot by the visitors. Kevin Betsy was a pale shadow of a fortnight ago against Morecambe and Matt Phillips looked tired and lethargic.
Wycombe wasted another golden opportunity to take the lead just before the hour mark when the ball was pulled back across goal for Jon-Paul Pittman who smashed the ball over the Valley End and it is probably still travelling towards the Kassam Stadium now. That was the last real chance the hosts created and they would have been made to pay had it not been for Bull.
The former Aldershot stopper showed why he has such a good reputation with a stunning stop from Constable on the hour. The U’s hit-man thumped an early, angled shot from outside the area and Bull got his fingertips to it and the ball crashed against the angle of post and bar and away to safety.
It seemed as if an Oxford goal was only a matter of time and three minutes later Matt Green was again given too much room to run in on goal only for Bull to race out and make himself big to block the striker’s shot. Richie Baker replaced Dannie Bulman on 65 minutes, the ex-Chairboy being given a warm round of applause from the home fans.
The home side’s attacks became more fraught and sporadic and the introduction of Scott Rendell for Jon-Paul Pittman made little difference. The U’s could have snatched a late winner with two similar headed chances at the far post from deep right-wing cross but both Asa Hall and Jack Midson could only head wide of the left-hand post.
Four minutes of injury-time saw a frantic period of play in front of the dugouts where four separate 50:50 tackles were lost by Wycombe players and their concession of needless free-kicks almost proved costly when Midson met a dead-ball but there was no-one on hand to provide a finishing touch to his header back across goal.
Referee Anthony Taylor, who was dreadful throughout, blew the final whistle to the relief of the home support. Whilst a third successive clean-sheet and an unbeaten start to the season are positives to take, the overall feeling was that we had escaped with a point and that level of performance is a long way from what is required if we are to achieve our aim of promotion this season.
1. Nikki BULL – 8*
2. Danny FOSTER – 5
3. Andy SANDELL – 5
4. Alan BENNETT – N/A Sub: 6. Leon JOHNSON (7 mins) – 5)
5. Dave WINFIELD – 5
18. Matt PHILLIPS – 5
10. Matt BLOOMFIELD- 6
17. Lewis MONTROSE – 6 (Sub: 7. Gareth AINSWORTH 57 mins – 5)
11. Kevin BETSY (capt) – 5
12. Ben STREVENS – 5
16. Jon-Paul PITTMAN – 5 (Sub: 9. Scott RENDELL 74 mins – 5)
Standout visiting player – Simon HESLOP