York City midfielder Mitch Ward still believes the Minstermen can clinch automatic promotion.

A run of just two wins from their last 11 games has left City six points adrift of third-placed Swansea but former Everton and Sheffield United star Ward believes the Bootham Crescent squad is strong enough to plug that gap or at least grab a play-off spot.

City's ever-present midfielder has not missed a league game since his summer switch from Barnsley and has seen enough to predict a climb back up the Division Tthree table, starting with a good result against second-placed Oxford tonight (7.45pm).

He said: "I used to play with Andy Scott at Oxford and he's been telling me about them. He won't be playing because he has broken his leg but he's said they are a strong, physical team who like to get off to a good start so we will have to match them early doors and hopefully the football will come through.

"This league's all about what happens on the day. Everybody is capable of beating each other and we have got a team that can get in the play-offs or even go up automatic.

"There's still a long way to go and I feel we just need to be a little bit more consistent away from home to be there or thereabouts. First, we need to keep in the play-off zone. That's our aim."

City have only lost once in seven games at Bootham Crescent this season and Ward believes that form can keep Chris Brass' men in promotion contention.

But he also feels the Minstermen need to acquire a ruthless streak after Saturday's frustrating 1-1 draw with Boston.

He said: "We were disappointed not to get all three points because we were tremendous in the first-half and could not have done anything more apart from get an extra goal to kill them off. But that's the problem at the moment - we keep making all these chances but not putting them away.

"We went in happy at 1-0 up then continued to do well but could not stick another in and then the sucker punch came from a cross and a great header to be fair from their lad. We punished ourselves really by not putting the chances away."

Ward, 32, has formed a promising midfield partnership this season with the impressive Darren Dunning, who is ten years his junior, and is enjoying their blossoming understanding, saying: "I have only known the lad since I came here but he's young and enthusiastic and can run around a bit more than me. We work well together.

"He's a good talker and that's what you need because it's all about working for one another."

Ex-Premiership ace Ward has also indicated that he has been happy with his first three months at City and, despite an interest in coaching, is already thinking about staying at Bootham Crescent as a player beyond the end of this season when his current one-year contract expires.

He said: "I have enjoyed it since I came here. The training facilities are good and I get on brilliantly with Chris and Lee. I knew Jon Parkin from Barnsley and Darren Edmondson, who I have done some coaching courses with, before I came here and my impressions of the club have all been great. I would eventually like to get involved in coaching but I'll speak to the club after Christmas and see where we are heading."

York City (possible): Ovendale, Cooper, Smith, Brass, Hope, Merris, Ward, Dunning, Bullock, Parkin, Nogan. Subs from: Porter, Wood, Dove, Crowe, George, Brackstone.

Oxford United (probable): Woodman, McNiven, Ashton, Crosby, Bound, Robinson, Whitehead, Wanless, Hunt, Basham, Louis. Subs: McCarthy, Waterman, Alsop, Brown, Rawle.

Referee: Carl Boyeson (East Yorks)

Kick off: 7.45pm

Match points:

- In 11 previous league trips to Bootham Crescent, Oxford have won five times and drawn once.

- City's biggest home win in the series was 2-0 in 1975/76 when Barry Swallow and Dennis Wann were the scorers.

- United won the corresponding game here last term 1-0 and City lined up on September 28, 2002 as follows: Fettis, Edmondson, Smith, Brass, Hobson (Wood), Cowan, Bullock, Potter, Duffield (Yalcin), Nogan (Mazzina), Parkin.

- Players to have appeared for both City and United include John Shepherd, John Byrne, David Rush and Lee Nogan.

Stats by David Batters

Updated: 11:22 Tuesday, October 21, 2003