Portsmouth 1-1 Oxford United: Marcus Browne strike earns draw at Fratton Park

Marcus Browne’s first-half strike was his fifth goal in nine league starts for Oxford

A fine solo goal from Marcus Browne saw Oxford United draw their play-off semi-final first leg at Portsmouth, in what was the first League One game after a 115-day hiatus.

Protracted discussions about how the season would be decided during the coronavirus outbreak meant the third-tier competition became the fourth and final English league to restart.

While it was an alien scene at a near empty Fratton Park – made all the more eerie by blustery winds whistling around deserted stands – the high-stakes tie behind closed doors was just another strange snapshot of football being played during a pandemic.

Despite the 16-week break and bizarre circumstances on their return, Pompey started brightly with Ronan Curtis hitting the post early on before he put them ahead just after the half-hour mark.

Browne levelled in fine style before the break, but it took a diving save from Simon Eastwood from a Christian Burgess effort to ensure Oxford head into Monday’s second leg at the Kassam Stadium on level terms.

Portsmouth finished the game protesting a late decision by referee Gavin Ward not to award an injury-time penalty when Curtis went to ground after he got in a tangle with the legs of Daniel Agyei.

It was one of a number of unsuccessful penalty appeals by the home side in a tie that is finely poised as the teams try to reach Wembley to face either Wycombe Wanderers or Fleetwood Town.

More than two weeks after the Premier League became the first competition to restart after the pandemic-enforced break, Pompey and Oxford started on their quest to complete their curtailed campaign with promotion to the Championship.

After nearly four months since their last competitive fixture, Portsmouth were quickest to settle and dominated early possession.

Portsmouth and Oxford finished the curtailed season level on points

Curtis, who hit the base of the post with a shot from the edge of the area after just seven minutes, gave Pompey a deserved lead with a effort from the left that crept inside Eastwood’s near post.

The goal came just moments after the hosts had appeals for a penalty waved away when Oxford’s Rob Dickie – who also appeared to handle an earlier goal-bound effort – tussled with Burgess.

The U’s then responded in style through Browne – the forward running free from the half-way line, leaving Pompey’s defence struggling to backtrack to adequately cover the danger before he unleashed a low shot beyond goalkeeper Alex Bass.

Both sides had a number of half chances after the break, but it was Burgess who went closest to winning it for Pompey, his flicked header forcing Eastwood into a diving save to his right.