Match wrap: Oxford United 1 AFC Wimbledon 1 (4-3 on penalties)

We’re back, or are we?

I watched the brilliant Netflix documentary series, Hip Hop Evolution, a few weeks ago and specifically the story of the ‘cyphers’ which sprung up around Washington Park in New York in the late 1990s. Cyphers were sessions where kids would congregate and try to outdo each other with their rhymes and wordplay in freestyle rap battles. 

Cyphers were an organic reaction to the money-motivated populism of Puff Daddy, which in turn was a reaction to the grim gun violence which led to the killing of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. 

Where Puff Daddy sampled great chunks of familiar million-selling songs and ran reductive raps over the top with the sole aim of selling bucket loads of records, the cyphers re-connected kids with the origins of hip hop. Rather than instant gratification from pop samples which played to a worldwide audience, DJs went back to finding obscure records to sample to create new sounds and beats while MCs outdid each other with the complexity of their rhymes and rhythm. What resulted was a generation of skilled lyricists like Talib Kweli, Common and Eminem.

One commentator explained, it was a reconnection of the output with its context. With the likes of Puff Daddy, hip hop had become solely about money, playing to the lowest common denominator, this new wave was about its community, building their reputation by being more skilful and clever than the others.

The link between football and its context is currently being tested, watching via an internet stream remains a mostly soulless experience. It’s necessary, and in some ways helpful, to be reminded that we remain in the midst of a crisis, and that things are not normal. It’s therefore right that Karl Robinson treated the Wimbledon game as an extension of our pre-season friendly programme. Entertaining the crowd wasn’t necessarily a priority. Even when league games start next week, it will still feel like we’re treading water until we can reconnect the games with their context and have fans back in the ground.

The re-structured season may play to our advantage. There is a built-in stability this season; only Marcus McGuane, Rob Atkinson and Derick Osei Yaw (briefly) made their debuts compared to five players last season and six the year before. Both those seasons started unevenly with just two wins out of our first eight last year, one less than the year before. 

But aside from the settled squad, our difficulties at the start of a season is down to the style we play, lots of passing and possession accompanied with blistering attacks in numbers. The movement needs to be second nature if it’s to be effective and, while that’s bedding in, we can look like a group of busy fools getting picked off by more conservative opposition. Take, for example, last season’s 4-2 defeat to Burton, there were times when we looked brilliant, but then we were unpicked by a team whose idea of cutting loose is to undo the top button of a Marks and Spencer shirt. In both previous seasons it took some time to find our flow. 

The stability we’ve managed to achieve over the summer means that most of the DNA remains intact. Osei Yaw aside, whose appearance was too brief to judge, Atkinson looked comfortable in place of Rob Dickie, while McGuane was industrious throughout. There was one brilliant pass which nearly put Matty Taylor through, but otherwise you could see he was still trying to figure out where the angles were with an extra touch which often lost him the opportunity. You get the sense, given time, he’ll be more confident of where his team mates are making his play more incisive. The lack of crowds – with their ability to erode as well as build confidence – may be an advantage.

It was also good to see Cameron Brannagan back in form. While few were prepared to admit it, least of all Brannagan himself, he didn’t quite seem the player he was post-injury last year, which may be why he’s still at the club, but it looks like we’ll benefit as a result. Also, Simon Eastwood continues to come back into form after a rusty play-off campaign. 

So the Wimbledon game, along with the EFL Trophy game against Chelsea Under 21s on Tuesday acts as an extended opportunity to bed new players in without the pressure of the fans complaining at a missed pass or opportunity. In addition, there isn’t the carrot of a big Premier League payday to play for which can tempt managers into looking for short term results over long term benefit. Whatever the second round brings, its advantage is in the minutes the players have on the pitch together, over the glories of the result. The lack of urgency in the early stages of the season should allow new players to settle and existing players to find their feet.

Pretty much every year I say that the season starts with all idealism and no facts and ends with all facts and no idealism. No single game defines the outcome of a season, least of all the first, so drawing significant conclusions to the draw with Wimbledon; our frailties at set pieces or the lack of clear chances up front is a fool’s game. While we seek answers to open questions, football is all a process of evolution. It’s why we, as fans, live with it constantly questioning and concluding only to find that the game has changed and the context moved on. 

Last year we’d won only three games of our opening ten, something that’s forgotten given what came later. That period could have been the difference between the play-offs and promotion. The year before it was just four wins. The front loading of League Cup and Trophy games this season affords us more opportunity to try, and fail, before the season gets into gear and, hopefully, the context; the reason for doing this in the first place, begins to return.  

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Oxblogger

Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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