City 3 Oxford 2

SHAY McCartan stopped and offered a cheery wave as James Mason bellowed encouragement from halfway up the main stand.

“We’ve made the pitch just for you,” shouted City’s chief operating officer. “It’s like being back home in Northern Ireland.”

McCartan had a noticeable spring in his step as he made his way towards the dressing rooms before Saturday’s game.

The fillip of a first league start for four months had, in his own words, brought him “in from the cold”.

Valley Parade has not felt much like home for one of City’s headline summer recruits. That £200,000 price tag has weighed heavily around the neck of a player who arrived from Accrington with big expectations.

Written off by many, it seemed that McCartan would be another signing destined not to live up to the billing.

But finally given the chance in a proper game – and yes, that’s written with total disrespect for the Checkatrade Trophy – he seized the spotlight.

The promising signs had been there in recent weeks. Those who made the pre-Christmas trip to Southend would have seen McCartan’s finest 15 minutes by far in a City shirt.

A second-half outing on Boxing Day appeared a thankless task with Peterborough firmly in control.

But the energy and sharpness about the Irishman encouraged Stuart McCall to hand him a first start since that crazy August afternoon at Walsall.

An opening City goal that day was completely overshadowed by the meltdown that followed.

On Saturday, McCartan’s cracker topped off a personal performance that will have gone a long way to convince the doubters.

As the transfer window opens, and all the usual “will he, won’t he” shenanigans with it, maybe City have just unearthed their first new signing.

A firing and confident McCartan will provide a timely mid-season boost to McCall, particularly when attacking options could be stretched to breaking point by Charlie Wyke’s three-game ban.

The cynics will say that Valley Parade may have seen the last of the club’s 12-goal top scorer, if the club’s expected appeal fails.

Interest inevitably grows in Wyke – there were ten scouts watching him on Boxing Day – and that will not be dimmed by a short consignment on the sideline for his late red card.

City will not encourage any of it but you know the stories of Championship pursuit will build on a daily basis. It would be totally naive to imagine nobody will test the club’s resolve.

Wyke’s influence on a year that has cemented them in a play-off spot cannot be underestimated. His presence would be sorely missed in the short term.

It was his close-range strike that got things going on another rollercoaster afternoon that waved off 2017 in frenetic fashion.

The first half was as exhilarating an attacking display as Valley Parade will have witnessed in years. It made Rochdale almost pedestrian in comparison.

The grumbling from back-to-back Christmas losses needed to be quelled by a high-octane response. City sure delivered that with a 30-shot barrage.

And it was McCartan at the heart of the first strike on two minutes.

There looked a fair shout for a penalty as his zip into the box was cut down by Aaron Martin.

City had to make do with a corner but McCartan was first to that with the flick-header goalwards. Simon Eastwood blocked, the first of many saves, but Wyke was on hand to bury the rebound.

The first-half fun was underway. Paul Taylor twice, Wyke twice, Timothee Dieng, Matt Kilgallon, Nicky Law, McCartan – it would be quicker to list those who didn’t pepper the Oxford goal.

Wyke clipped the bar and Dieng, making a huge impact in centre midfield, was thwarted on the line by James Henry. But otherwise it was a duel between rampant City and an elastic-limbed Eastwood.

The keeper, who had been target for plenty of stick during his Valley Parade loan in McCall’s final season of his first managerial spell, appeared to be on a personal crusade in front of the Kop.

“I knew he was a good goalie when I gave him his first chance as a youngster,” smiled McCall. “But he was outstanding.”

Without Eastwood’s resistance, Oxford could have been staring at a beating every bit as heavy as the record 7-0 tonking they took from Wigan the week before.

Instead, they hung in the contest and offered enough warnings on the break to remove any City complacency.

Rouven Sattelmaier’s block with a strong left arm from a criminally-unmarked Wes Thomas just before half-time reinforced that danger.

Even with Nathaniel Knight-Percival’s welcome return, City again looked vulnerable defensively.

Despite the constant home pressure, it was almost inevitable that Oxford should wipe out the slender advantage soon after the break.

Teenager Canice Carroll powered home Ricardinho’s corner for his first senior goal and then celebrated in front of the home ranks as if he had won the cup.

“C’mon City” roared the Kop in response and the hosts rode that blow admirably. None more so than McCartan, one with a clearer agenda to bounce back more than most.

There appeared nothing on when he picked up the ball 30 yards out in Oxford territory. But with one thing on his mind, he wriggled into space and picked out the bottom corner of the net – giving a sprawling Eastwood absolutely no chance.

McCartan had finally announced his arrival on the City stage and personal confidence will have soared.

City pressed on for more and found a third goal within four minutes. Tyrell Robinson came up with another pinpoint cross from the left wing and Dieng, having missed with three headers against Peterborough, made no mistake.

That should have been game over but Oxford ensured an unnecessarily twitchy finish when Jon Obika stabbed home with 15 minutes left.

There was a further twist when Wyke went in with an over-zealous challenge on Carroll in stoppage time.

It was not malicious and the Oxford opponent later agreed the red card was harsh. Wyke’s foul certainly did not register on the spiteful scale of the one Robinson received from Alex Penny of Peterborough that only received a booking.

But both Wyke’s feet were raised and that’s a sending-off in the eyes of the law.

Thankfully no further damage was done – other than the large hole it could leave in City’s frontline for now. But at least there is an Irishman with a twinkle in his eye ready to make a new start in the new year.