Oxford United fans were chanting "There's Only One Beano" and "Sign Him On" after James Constable's brace kept their play-off flame burning brightly at Nene Park tonight.

Constable scored a wonderfully instinctive goal to put United ahead in the first half, and then, when ex-U's midfielder Rob Wolleaston equalised just before the hour, Constable won and converted a penalty 20 minutes from time.

That makes it 21 goals for the season for the centre forward - or 22 if England C is included - and six goals from the last four games.

And, to cap a great night for Chris Wilder's team, Simon Clist wrapped up another vital three league points with a third goal in the last minute, a side-footed finish after Constable had made the goal with a strong run down the right before picking him out.

The opening goal on 25 minutes came from a glorious move down the left between Chris Carruthers and Craig Nelthorpe. When the cross came over, it was missed by ex-U's defender Michael Corcoran.

Constable reacted in a flash and swivelled to hit a superb left-footed shot past keeper Dale Roberts from 12 yards.

Rushden came back strongly and desevedly levelled, but Constable earned the match-winning penalty on 70 minutes with a great turn and purposeful runn into the box, where he was tripped by Chris Hope.

He then converted the spot kick with real precision, high into the top right corner, with keeper Dale Roberts not standing a chance.

There was fantastic support for the visitors from a massive 900-strong Oxford support behind one goal, and they were in full voice from the off.

Wilder brought back Yemi Odubade and Adam Murray, in place of Lewis Haldane and Craig Farrell, in addition to the enforced change of Carruthers for the suspended Kevin Sandwith.

Rushden, who had beaten the U's 5-0 in the corresponding fixture last season, in what turned out to be Jim Smith's last game in charge, permanently, made the better start.

A late challenge on Damian Batt earned Lee Tomlin a booking, and Luke Foster followed him into the referee's notebook when he baulked Tomlin's run towards the left bye-line.

United tried to press high up the pitch, but they gave away far too many free-kicks to feel comfortable, and with Andy Burgess able to deliver some quality set pieces, it wasn't the brightest thing to do.

But they got away with it, Simon Clist having to clear the ball from just in front of Billy Turley after one dangerous moment.

Nelthorpe managed to deflect a 25-yard drive from Burgess over the bar to force one of the home side's six first-half corners.

Diamonds put together some early pressure, and the Oxford fans had little doubt that they were getting nearly all of the decisions, an ironic cheer greeting the first free-kick to the U's about 20 minutes into the game.

Then on 25 minutes, United got the breakthrough following a sweeping move.

Carruthers took a return pass from Nelthorpe, and from his early cross, Corcoran missed his clearance. Constable was alongside a defender, who didn't react as well as the striker, and in a flash the ball was in the net.

Already idolised by United's supporters, Constable then drew resounding cheers when he chased the ball down to block Roberts' attempted clearance for a corner.

In the closing moments of the first half, Foster headed wide at a corner, and Murray required some lengthy treatment following a challenge near his own goal.

Rushden had not managed a shot on target in the first half, but they made amends with four in the first seven minutes of the second half as they pinned Oxford in their own area.

Turley half-saved, half-fumbled Marcus Kelly's volley over the bar, then Clist nodded off the line after the keeper couldn't collect a corner cleanly.

However, Turley used all his experience to get in just the right position to save when Michael Rankine shot on the turn near the penalty spot following some less than convincing defending.

Eventually, though, Oxford saw out the storm, and when opportunities came on the counter, both Murray and Odubade fired shots wide.

However, on 59 minutes, Rushden equalised from a goal out of nothing.

Tomlin got the better of Murray in a midfield exchange and knocked a clever ball through to Wolleaston, who chipped over the outrsuhing Turley and into the goal, fropm the left edge of the area.

In running back and desperately trying to hook the ball out of the goal, in vain, Foster was injured as he got caught up in the goal netting, but after treatment he was able to carry on.

But it continued to be all Rushden in the second half, and Turley beat out another fierce shot from Tomlin.

But Constable's third brace of the month and Clyst's late third sealed the points.

Rushden: Roberts 6; Osano (Downer 6, 10), Corcoran 5, Hope 5, Robinson 6, Beecroft 7, Burgess 7, Wolleaston 7, Kelly 7, Tomlin 8, Rankine 7. Subs not used: McNamara, Arthur. Booked: Tomlin, Rankine, Robinson.

Oxford Utd: Turley 7; Batt 7, Willmott 8, Foster 7, Carruthers 7; Odubade 6 (Haldane 72), Chapman 7, Murray 6 (Hutchinson 81), Clist 8, Nelthorpe 7, Constable 9* (Farrell 90). Subs not used: Hinchliffe, Day. Booked: Foster.