HARTLEPOOL United’s play-off hopes were dealt a bitter blow with a 1-0 defeat to Oxford United at the Kassam Stadium.
A 77th minute winner from David Connolly was enough to secure all three points against Colin Cooper’s side, who had to play the final 20 minutes with just 10 men after Simon Walton’s red card for two yellows.
It was a bitterly disappointing result in the end in a game which could have gone either way, with chances for both sides in the second-half especially.
The result leaves Pools in 10th place, still five points off the Sky Bet League Two play-offs but with the other sides still to play tomorrow.
Pools manager Colin Cooper made just one chance with winger Jack Compton coming in for the injured Andy Monkhouse, the only change to the Hartlepool United team.
The 33-year-old left the field in last weekend’s 4-0 win over Bristol Rovers at Victoria Park with a hamstring strain and Pools again lined up in a 4-4-2 formation at the Kassam Stadium.
The rest of the starting XI was unchanged but right-back Michael Duckworth, out injured with soft tissue damage, returned to the bench.
Oxford United had caretaker manager Mickey Lewis in the dugout for his 12th game in charge after former boss Chris Wilder left for Northampton Town.
The home side were expected to announce Wilder’s successor on Saturday.
The first real opportunity of the match for either side came in the 11th minute, on-loan Manchester United forward Jack Barmby was given a free run towards the Oxford goal.
But the 19-year-old couldn’t make the most of the opportunity and fired a shot just wide of Ryan Clarke’s left-hand post.
Moments later James Constable had a glorious chance to test Flinders but mis-cued his kick from 12-yards after good work down the left from Sean Rigg.
Then, in the 15th minute captain Sam Collins looked like he had been fouled but referee Andy Davies waved play on with David Connolly clean through.
But just as he was about to shoot Simon Walton slid in with a fantastic challenge from behind to nip the ball of Connolly’s boot.
Compton then slid in 19-year-old top scorer Luke James but he rushed his shot and screwed his effort well-wide of the right-hand post.
Goalkeeper Scott Flinders then had to be alert in the 19th minute to prevent Connolly’s low shot from creeping inside his front post, doing just enough to push it wide for a corner.
Pools were sloppy in possession at times, with Compton in particular guilty of a couple of stray passes.
While Oxford edged the first half in terms of possession and chances created Pools were holding firm but needing to be quicker and slicker when they had the ball.
Jordan Richards had acres of space down the right-hand side but every time he committed himself his teammates failed to find him with a decent pass.
Chances were few and far between, while the rain got heavier as the half wore on.
Pools finally started to exert a continued spell of pressure with five minutes of the half left and managed to win five consecutive corners.
Christian Burgess went closest, his header just tipped on to the top of the bar from Clarke.
Barmby forced Clarke into a smart save a minute before the half-time break, his right-footed shot was pushed wide of the right-hand post after a patient build-up from Cooper’s side.
But the half finished goalless.
Half Time: Oxford 0 Pools 0
It was a lively start to the first-half with Luke James almost in on goal within seconds of the re-start but Clarke just managed to get there before him.
Then up the other end Walton looked like he fouled Sean Rigg in the penalty area but referee Davies waved it away.
It was a let off for Cooper’s side.
Pools recovered well from the early second-half scare, James just unable to get his head on a tantalising Compton cross to the back post.
It was a far better second-half from the two play-off contenders but Pools were dealt a blow in the 65th minute.
Walton, impressive in recent weeks, booked for a foul on the half way line which means he will now miss the next two matches - Mansfield Town on Tuesday and Cheltenham Town at home the following Saturday.
Barmby saw a shot saved in the 69th minute before then giving away a soft foul close to the Pools area a minute later.
Josh Ruffels’ resulting free-kick stinged the palms of Flinders who gathered the ball at the second attempt.
It was end-to-end action.
Pools were then dealt a hammer blow, going down to 10-men after Walton picked up his second yellow card for a late challenge on Rigg in the 75th minute.
It got worse two minutes later when CONNOLLY gave Oxford the lead with a stooping header inside the penalty area in the 77th minute, connecting with a free-kick.
Cooper then brought on Tony Sweeney for Compton, who had given the free-kick away.
Oxford almost doubled their lead in the 80th minute, Constable played through on goal but he was unable to steer the ball past Flinders who saved well.
Jonathan Franks then entered the field in place of Barmby as the game entered the final 10 minutes, followed by James Poole on for Holden as Cooper switched to a 3-3-3 formation.
Pools were certainly doing all they could to get back into the game but struggled to create any real chances.
Sub Alfie Potter then burst through in the dying minutes but shot hight over the bar.
Pools hit back and Harewood did well to lay the ball off to James whose shot was deflected just wide from inside the penalty area.
He had a similar effort moments later but it again flashed wide, along with Pools’ hopes of snatching an equaliser.
Full Time: Oxford 1 Pools 0
Pools (4-4-2): Flinders, Richards, Collins (C), Burgess, Holden (Poole, 86), Walton, Walker, Compton (Sweeney, 77), Barmby (Franks, 84), James, Harewood.
Subs Not Used: Rafferty (gk), Rowbotham, Hawkins, Duckworth.
Booked: Richards, Walton.
Sent off: Walton.
Oxford United (4-4-2): Clarke, Hunt, Bevans, Wright (C), Long, Williams (Potter, 37), Whing, Ruffels, Rigg, Connolly, Constable (Smalley, 90).
Subs Not Used: Crocombe, Rose, Davies, O’Dowda, Wroe.
Goal: Connolly (77)
Referee: Andy Davies (Hampshire)
Attendance: 4,954 (Pools) 185