CONOR Hourihane’s late strike denied Oxford United a point at Derby County on the opening day of the Sky Bet League One season.

The midfielder, one of seven debutants in the Rams starting XI, capitalised on Stuart Findlay's sloppy pass to curl home the winner with ten minutes left in front of more than 31,000 fans at a raucous Pride Park.

It was tough on the U’s, who matched their opponents for most of the game without putting the Derby goal under serious pressure.

But even with seven minutes of stoppage-time to play with, they could not find an equaliser as the wait for a first opening-day win since 2017 goes on.

United had lined-up in a 4-3-3 formation for most of pre-season but Karl Robinson switched to 4-2-3-1, with Marcus McGuane alongside Cameron Brannagan in midfield – less than 48 hours after the latter appeared destined for Blackpool.

James Henry made his first start of 2022 on the right of the front three, with Marcus Browne in the middle, while Findlay was handed a competitive debut and Simon Eastwood got the nod in goal.

Jodi Jones was not registered in time after his transfer yesterday so teenagers James Golding, Tyler Goodrham and Gatlin O’Donkor were all among the substitutes.

Both sets of fans created a terrific atmosphere before kick-off, with the home supporters riding the wave of their recent takeover and the sold-out away section buoyed by Brannagan’s decision to stay.

Derby flew out of the traps as they targeted United’s left-hand side early on, but the closest they came to scoring was an Eiran Cashin header that Eastwood saved easily.

The visitors’ first chance came in the fifth minute when Billy Bodin made the first of several dangerous runs off his wing to meet Elliott Moore’s diagonal pass.

The forward reached the ball before Joe Wildsmith and lobbed the Rams goalkeeper, only to see it bounce wide.

The U’s survived Derby’s fast start with no major scares and their forwards began to get into the game, leading to their best opportunity of the half after 19 minutes.

Matty Taylor turned his man and only had Wildsmith to beat, but he struggled to get the ball out of his feet under pressure and fired wide.

The No 9 saw an effort blocked six minutes later, before Henry curled a shot too close to the Derby goalkeeper after Moore again found Bodin with the diagonal.

United looked solid with the two holding midfielders, while Findlay seemed to be first to every corner, but Derby had two chances towards the end of the half.

James Collins took on Moore and saw his shot deflected into the side-netting, before Nathaniel Mendez-Laing got in behind following a quick free-kick. He only had Eastwood to beat, but the goalkeeper stood tall to save.

The second half began as fiercely as the first as Hourihane, Browne and Collins were all booked for late challenges within ten minutes of the restart.

It raised the volume inside Pride Park and Bodin went close again just before the hour mark, forcing Wildsmith to tip his half-volley over the crossbar after Sam Long’s cross found its way to the back post.

Derby brought on Louie Sibley for Korey Smith moments later and they almost took the lead instantly.

Mendez-Laing’s cross was headed straight to Collins and the striker volleyed towards goal, with Brannagan throwing himself at the ball on the line – giving the U’s fans another chance to sing his name.

Robinson made a double change with 17 minutes left as Alex Gorrin came on for his first competitive outing since November 7 last year, replacing Henry. Meanwhile, Josh Murphy entered the fray for his debut as Bodin made way.

Mendez-Laing was unlucky to see a volley hit Sibley in the six-yard box 12 minutes from time, but Derby soon had their goal.

Findlay had been impressive on debut but his pass out of the back went loose and the hosts capitalised, with Hourihane curling past Eastwood and into the bottom corner.

The U’s lacked the attacking firepower on the bench for one last roll of the dice and they were unable to create another chance in the closing stages.

Derby County (4-3-3): Wildsmith, Knight, Cashin, Davies, Roberts, Smith (Sibley 59), Bird, Hourihane, Mendez-Laing (Thompson 86), Collins, Barkhuizen.

Unused subs: Loach, Oduroh, Stearman, Forsyth, Stretton.

Booked: Hourihane, Collins, Mendez-Laing, Davies.

Oxford United (4-2-3-1): Eastwood, Long, Moore, Findlay, Seddon (Brown 90+7), McGuane, Brannagan, Henry (Gorrin 73), Browne, Bodin (Murphy 73), Taylor.

Unused subs: Stevens, Golding, Goodrham, O’Donkor.

Booked: Browne, Seddon.

Referee: Anthony Backhouse (Cumbria).

Attendance: 31,053.