Bury slipped to their twelfth consecutive league defeat as Oxford United came out on top in a well contested match at Gigg Lane.
In what was Chris Brass’s first game in permanent charge, the Shakers got off to a flying start on five minutes when a free-kick from Paul Rachubka made its way through to James Vaughan, who lofted a measured effort over Simon Eastwood from 15 yards.
George Miller came close to doubling the Shakers’ lead on eight minutes, when he was played through on goal, but with a tight angle, his shot could not find a way past the onrushing Eastwood, who saved well down to his right.
The lead did not last for long, however. A clumsy foul from Kelvin Etuhu on 13 minutes presented Oxford with a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area. Chris Maguire made the most of the opportunity, bending the ball beyond Rachubka and into the bottom right hand corner to pull the Us back on level terms.
The visitors created another good opportunity on 25 minutes, when Robert Hall worked his way down the Oxford left, before pulling the ball back to Maguire in front of goal, but his drilled effort was saved brilliantly by Rachubka low to his right.
Following another period of Oxford pressure, Maguire missed another fantastic chance to give his side the lead on 38 minutes. With the ball falling at his feet ten yards out and the goal gaping, he could only miscue his shot horribly, slicing the ball into the Manchester Road End.
The Shakers were back in front a minute later thanks to Tom Pope. The forward got on the end of a Scott Burgess cross, and looked to have found the net with a powerful header, only for it to be blocked on the line by Chey Dunkley. Luckily, the rebound fell fortuitously for Pope, who nodded home at the second attempt, before wheeling away in jubilant celebration.
The goal seemed to galvanise Bury as they pushed on for a third goal, with the energetic George Miller proving to be a constant menace in closing down the Oxford defenders when in possession.
Any hopes of building on the advantage were dashed on 43 minutes though, when Maguire again found the back of the Shakers net from a set piece. Making amends for his miss just minutes earlier, the forward found the top right corner with a deliciously lobbed free-kick from 20 yards.
Minutes later, the referee’s whistle brought an exhilarating half of end-to-end action to a close.
With darkness descending on Gigg Lane, the Shakers returned to the field looking to regain the initiative, and they could have gone ahead within minutes when Miller raced through on goal, but was dispossessed by Marvin Johnson just as he was about to pull the trigger.
On 56 minutes, it was the visitors turn to come close, when Kane Hemmings broke free of the Bury defence, but his shot could only find the outside of the upright.
A sustained period of Oxford pressure followed, and it was not long before the scoreline swung in their favour. On 70 minutes, Johnson broke down the left wing and fizzed a low cross into the area, and Greg Leigh could do little as the ball cannoned off of his leg and into the back of his own net to put the visitors 3-2 up.
With the Shakers pushing to get back on level terms, tensions threatened to boil over ten minutes from the end, when Tom Pope hauled down Maguire on the touchline, with the referee brandishing a yellow card to the former Port Vale forward.
The Shakers had a late penalty shout waved away, when Hallam Hope attempted to get between two defenders before going to ground, but the desperate protests of players and supporters fell on deaf ears.
As a tightly contested game drew to a close, Bury continued to press but were unable to find an equaliser. A frustrating afternoon was compounded by the fact that the defeat leaves the Shakers in the relegation places for the first time this season.
Next up for the Shakers is a trip to Fleetwood Town on Boxing Day.
Man of the Match - George Miller
Attendance: 2,986 (477 away fans)
Bury starting line-up: Rachubka, Leigh, Kay, Bedeau (Maher 60), Etuhu, Soares, Burgess, Mayor (Walker 45), Miller, Pope, Vaughan (Hope 73)
Unused subs: Williams, Dudley, Styles, Cooney
Oxford United starting line-up: Eastwood, Edwards, Nelson, Dunkley, Johnson, Hall (Roberts 80), Lundstram, Ledson, MacDonald, Maguire, Hemmings (Taylor 90+2)
Unused subs: Buchel, Ruffels, Giles, Rothwell, Raglan