A controversial first half penalty was the difference in a closely-contested tie at Cressing Road, hosts Braintree Town labouring to a 1-0 win over a resilient Oxford City.
Ade Cole's 35th minute spot kick, awarded from a Braintree corner, came against the run of play with the Hoops having twice gone close in the opening half hour; and the visitors went on to edge an eventful second half without finding a much-needed goal.
Mark Jones once again came into the game with a threadbare squad. Whilst Luton Town loanee Harry Isted was available once again, Zac McEachran, Eddie Jones, Tarik Moore-Azille and Stefan Brown all remained sidelined through injury. Reece Fleet, however, passed a late fitness test – joining Jack Self, Jenson Wright and Josh Ashby in the centre of midfield. Behind them, centre-halves Finn Tapp and Joe Oastler once again joined forces, flanked by Kyran Wiltshire and Ben Jefford. Finally, Reece Beckles-Richards and Nana Owusu formed the Hoops' attacking partnership.
City got off to a bright start, the midfield pressing Braintree effectively to force a number of errors as the hosts tried to play the ball out of defence. Self was the first to make the most of one such opportunity in the 11th minute, curling a placed effort towards the far post but failing to beat Michael Johnson.
Three minutes later, Johnson was tested once again. This time it was Wiltshire who broke down the right following a neat exchange of passes, and his effort at the near post forced the Braintree 'keeper to spill the ball – regaining control in the nick of time as Beckles-Richards arrived looking to pick up the pieces.
A further three minutes passed before the visitors found themselves with not one but two sights of goal – Beckles-Richards breaking clear of the defence to blast narrowly over the bar before Owusu forced another smart save with a powerful low effort.
Whilst the Hoops had seen the best of the early exchanges, the Iron began to show glimpses of the attacking prowess which had propelled them into the playoff places. With 18 minutes played, an Adam Mills header threatened to sneak past Isted, before a quickly taken free kick almost allowed Jason Banton to slip through the City defence only for his shot to deflect behind for a corner.
The turning post of the game arrived shortly after. With Isted having comfortably claimed a corner and both sides seemingly focussed on getting back into position for the game to continue, referee Callum Walchester put his whistle to his lips to blow for a penalty. Cole stepped up confidently, sending Isted the wrong way to give his side the lead.
The penalty decision set the tone for the remainder of the half with the Hoops being awarded a brace of dubious corners which ultimately came to nothing.
The Hoops kicked off the second period with something of a goalmouth scramble – a succession of shots from inside the area being well blocked before the ball eventually fell clear.
A clearer opportunity presented itself on the hour mark. Having switched to the left wing, Owusu cut inside and weaved his way into a central position, only for his shot to be blocked at close range.
This opportunity kick-started an intense, end-to-end period of the game as City began committing an increasing number of players to attack, leaving the hosts to make the most of opportunities on the break. One such opportunity saw Cameron Green selflessly square to an unmarked Tyler Christian-Law, only for the defender's shot to be blocked by a combination of a defender and his teammate.
Undeterred, the Hoops continued to attack patiently in numbers but found a solid Iron defence in place to reduce them to efforts from range. One such effort from Fleet showed promise, but was not enough to beat Johnson.
Mark Jones made his first change with 20 minutes remaining: Ty-Rhys Paul-Jones replacing Jenson Wright.
Fleet was once again involved in City's next key chance, this time winning the ball back with an excellent tackle on the edge of the hosts' area and teeing up Beckles-Richards for what was ultimately a tame strike.
It proved to be Fleet's final involvement in the game, the midfielder making way to Craig Fasanmade with seven minutes remaining.
While City were largely camped in the opposing half, the Iron remained alert for opportunities to finish the game. They almost did just that when Mills fed a ball into the path of Tom Richardson, only for the forward to drill his shot narrowly wide.
The Hoops saved their best opportunity of the game for last. An Ashby free kick from the left found its way through to the back post where Fasanmade was waiting: the young striker was, however, unable to get the ball under control as it came in at stomach height, allowing Johnson to gather despite pressure from a number of onrushing players.
Defeat leaves City near the lower reaches of the National League South table, however St Albans' heavy 4-0 defeat at the hands of Maidstone did see the Hoops gain a position despite defeat by way of goal difference.
The Hoops can now look forward to another break from league action as they prepare to face Hampton & Richmond Borough in the FA Cup 3rd Qualifying Round – a 3pm kickoff at Marsh Lane on the 5th of October.
Oxford City: Isted, Jefford, Ashby, Oastler, Wiltshire, Fleet (Fasanmade 81), Wright (Paul-Jones 67), Owusu, Self, Beckles-Richards, Tapp.
Unused: R. King, Hawkins