A pulsating contest swung this way and that as the Shrews boss, back for his first game after a severe battle with Covid-19 and Covid pneumonia, lived and breathed every second from the directors’ box at the back of the Roland Wycherley Stand.
Cotterill’s volume levels and influence grew as a tense second half progressed. Shrewsbury had a deserved 2-1 lead at the break after a fine first half but the U’s - who needed to win for a realistic shot at making the play-offs - hit back late.
James Henry finished well midway through the second half and a deflected Dan Agyei goal from the bench won it with five minutes left.
Oxford, who beat Town 4-1 at the Kassam Stadium in recent weeks, led inside three minutes as Elliot Lee converted after a Matthew Pennington error. But the Shrews defender responded to head home an equaliser soon after.
Josh Vela swept in a fine finish to turn the scoreline on its head before the break but, with Cotterill calling the shots with his bench and kicking every ball, seventh-placed Oxford took control and struck late, to wild celebrations, to keep their play-off hopes alive.
The victory, sealed after dramatic last-gasp saves by Oxford keeper Jack Stevens, followed efforts of the same scoreline from March 2020 and April 2019.
Cotterill was put through the mill on his return to the Meadow for the first time since December 29. The manager spent most of a dramatic second half barking instructions at both his dugout and the players.
But the boss’ unbeaten league record at games in person as Town boss was over through Oxford’s late flurry. The home reverse was Shrewsbury’s 10th home league defeat of the campaign. They have two games left to end the League One season in winning ways.
The chaotic afternoon will also be remembered for a full senior debut for 17-year-old academy scholar Tom Bloxham. The rengy striker equipped himself well in an impressive first start.
Cotterill made the 100-mile journey from Bristol earlier in the day and arrived at the Meadow in good time. He was talking with his opposite number Karl Robinson and Town midfielder Dave Edwards out on the pitch a couple of hours before kick-off.
It was an emotional reunion for the manager with his players and staff, who he has not seen in person since late December and, in Aaron Wilbraham’s case, exactly four months.
The manager delivered his side’s team talk but was sat up in the directors’ box at the back of the Roland Wycherley Stand.
League One’s manager of the month for December - the only month he spent in charge before falling ill - Cotterill was out to defend and extend his seven-match league unbeaten record (in person).
The highlight of the manager’s first team selected back at a game was a full senior debut for 17-year-old academy striker Tom Bloxham, who had a league debut as a cameo late on in the defeat to Lincoln on Tuesday.
Bloxham, a 6ft 5ins first-year scholar, made it a second Saturday running in which Shrewsbury have handed a full league debut to an academy striker, following Charlie Caton at Blackpool.
Shrews were handed a huge boost by the return to defence of Aaron Pierre. The influential stopper has been out with a calf problem for three months.
He did play one game back at the beginning of April before feeling another problem in the leg muscle.
Harry Chapman also came in for Shaun Whalley for Shrewsbury.
Oxford knew a victory was required to keep alive their play-off hopes. Since beating Town 4-1 a few weeks ago, the U’s lost at AFC Wimbledon and enjoyed victories over Gillingham and Plymouth. They trailed sixth-placed Portsmouth by one place and one point ahead of kick-off.
The Meadow held an immaculately-respected minute’s silence for former Town hero, goalkeeper Steve Perks, who died this week aged 58.
Boss Cotterill took his position in the directors’ box just as the contest got underway.
And it was his home side who looked bright in forcing a high ball into the U’s box from an early free-kick.
But the set-piece came to nothing and, barely 30 seconds later, the visitors stormed down the other end of the pitch and converted a very soft opener.
Shrews defender Pennington was under little pressure around the halfway line but was forced into a poor error by Mark Sykes. Pennington slipped in trying to recover and the white away shirts were away.
Sykes led the charge with his side three-v-two and his reverse through pass was perfect for Matty Taylor, and the No.9 was entirely unselfish in squaring for Lee to tap into an empty net.
The slick passing move took Town’s defence and goalkeeper Harry Burgoyne out of the game, yet it was a totally avoidable goal from a Shrewsbury point of view.
The hosts had settled well otherwise, particularly teenager Bloxham, who despite his giant frame showed some exquisite early touches out on the right touchline that really helped settle him into his full debut.
Cotterill’s men forced a couple of set-pieces, from which they had no joy, before Oxford showed their own threat from the corner flag.
James Henry, who was back from suspension, found defender Rob Atkinson - who opened the scoring at the Kassam - but the centre-half could only head over the crossbar.
Bloxham continued to switch between the right flank and leading the line and the big striker showed excellent awareness to spin his defender in the box and force a corner through a sharp effort.
Salop kept the pressure on, Vela and Ethan Ebanks-Landell combined at the back post from a corner and the latter’s low strike forced another.
The corner created Salop’s equaliser, as Pennington made amends from his earlier error.
Just like seven days earlier in the 1-0 win at Blackpool which secured safety, the on-loan Everton stopper powered in an excellent header from Chapman’s corner, this time to restore parity.
The goal brought Cotterill, sitting behind the press box, to his feet.
A decent watch had broken out. The contest was open with both side’s giving as good as they got.
Goalscorer Lee almost bagged his second of the afternoon with a piledriver from distance which rippled the side netting just wide of the top right corner.
Seconds later, and almost out of nothing, Shrewsbury led.
Oxford defenders were caught on their heels as Chapman buzzed around before Vela squeezed through markers to charge free into the box and, from an acute angle, swept home a fine finish across Stevens and in.
It was the midfielder and player-of-the-season in waiting’s third goal of the season and his first Meadow goal for Shrewsbury.
The clinical finish was well-taken from the former Bolton man, who felt he was responsible for squandering a couple of chances as Shrews lost to Lincoln in midweek.
Cotterill, who was busy scribbling on a notepad throughout, would’ve been pleased to see his side turn the enjoyable contest on its head inside 25 minutes.
His reaction from a subsequent Oxford corner, which was claimed by Burgoyne, was to berate the staff in his dugout at something that displeased him.
The manager was living and breathing every minute from the directors’ box.
Oxford kept Burgoyne honest with low strikes from distance from Josh Ruffels and Brandon Barker, which were easily fielded.
And it was the confident hosts who kept on the front foot and threatened a third. They went mightily close with two efforts almost within seconds.
First Chapman - encouraged to ‘GET AT HIM’ by a screaming Cotterill behind us - turned his defender into the box before firing high into the near side netting from a tight left angle.
Just afterwards, the rampant Vela, in the advanced midfield role, stoll possession in the middle third and charged forward before firing a rocket from 25 yards that rippled the side netting on its way to crashing the stanchion.
Shrewsbury were good value for their lead, having negated much of the early Oxford pressure. The U’s, with talented attackers throughout the side, always appeared to carry a threat but could not carve through the Shrews backline.
Bloxham had been a real feature of his side’s fine first half. The 17-year-old put himself around well and showed quality on the ball, as well as a decent turn of pace. He was kept honest in his defensive duties from the impressive David Davis behind him, in the makeshift right wing-back role.
The only threat from Robinson’s side before the break was a Cameron Brannagan strike from distance, which flew well over after a neat passing move.
With Portsmouth winning at half-time elsewhere, the U’s knew they needed significant improvement in the second period.
Shrewsbury had their team talk conducted by Cotterill but the second half was littered with a number of stoppages that prevented momentum to be built. Brad Walker, in midfield for Shrews, struggled as a couple of passes went awry.
Pierre’s influence grew for Town. The returning defender showed what Shrews have been missing in recent months with a series of dominant clearing headers. Bloxham, too, made a fine headed clearance from a United corner.
Oxford’s frustration was surmised by Lee smashing a speculative drive well over from a long way out.
The second period lacked the excitement and freedom of the first.
The manager continued to bark his orders from the back of the main stand, particularly so when encouraging the tireless Vela to press Oxford’s defence.
Cotterill encouraged Nathanael Ogbeta to charge at his right-back as the left-sider was found in space on the hour but Ogbeta got his effort wrong and shot high into the Salop Leisure Stand.
Oxford finally stirred after the hour and a half-cleared free-kick led to Henry shrugging off Vela before a sharp goalbound strike was well blocked by Ebanks-Landell.
The Shrews boss continued to head and kick every ball, sharing audible frustration at Davis for failing to get a pass away.
Cotterill used a break in the play midway through the half to summon Ro-Shaun Williams for a chat before his introduction, before a long brief with David Longwell on perspective changes.
Town were just about to introduce Williams, Curtis Main and Whalley when the U’s ripped through Shrews’ backline.
Right-back Sam Long cut inside and fed Lee, whose smart, sharp pass into Henry was an incisive one and the former Wolves schemer finished exquisitely across Burgoyne and in.
Shrews’ triple substitution saw Davis switch into midfield while Williams took the right-back berth.
Town were fortunate to see Lee sky a presentable chance after Ogbeta had been caught in possession. The forward lifted over from the effective Henry’s cut-back. Ruffels fired over from distance shortly afterwards.
The visitors pushed, with the importance of a winner not lost on them, as Shrewsbury tired. A Henry free-kick from the right was headed over from Ruffels, who scored the winner in the 3-2 victory last time out between these sides just before the start of the pandemic.
Shrews were holding on as Pennington made a stunning block to deny a certain goal through the influential Ruffels.
But Salop could hold off no longer. The ball dropped kindly for sub Agyei who, back to goal in the box, held off his defender and turned before a reverse strike was deflected into Burgoyne’s bottom left corner. Cue pandemonium in the travelling U’s contingent.
It appeared anybody who backed a third 3-2 away win on the spin between these two sides at the Meadow would be quids in.
A dramatic finale was not over. With Cotterill going through the mill in the directors’ box, only some supreme goalkeeping from Oxford academy graduate Stevens, 23, kept his side’s lead.
Firstly the goalkeeper made a staggering stop to claw away Ebanks-Landell’s header from the top corner after Pierre’s cross.
Shrews continued to push and, as Ollie Norburn’s drilled volley was blocked, Ebanks-Landell screwed just wide of the left post.
There was still time for more drama. Town sub Whalley picked it up on the left, cut inside expertly and his curled strike from the corner of the edge of the box was heading towards the top right corner before Stevens’ outstanding intervention. It was truly inspired goalkeeping.
And those saves meant Oxford held on for a priceless win, while Shrewsbury and Cotterill were made to stew on a breathless, rollercoaster contest, full of twists and turns, that just got away from them.
Shrewsbury Town (3-5-2):
Burgoyne; Pennington, Ebanks-Landell, Pierre; Davis, Norburn ©, Walker (Williams, 69), Vela, Ogbeta (Udoh, 90+2); Chapman (Whalley, 69), Bloxham (Main, 69).
Subs not used: Bevan, Edwards, Love.
Oxford United (4-3-3):
Stevens; Long, Moore, Atkinson, Ruffels; Henry (Rodriguez, 89), Brannagan, Sykes; Lee (Agyei, 77), Taylor (Hanson, 89), Barker (Winnall, 82).
Subs not used: Eastwood, Rodriguez, Forde, Shodipo.
Referee: Samuel Barrott