Match wrap – Oxford United 3 AFC Wimbledon 0

Wimbledon wrote to the EFL last week protesting about the number of covid-related postponements across the Football League. They called on them to investigate ‘fully’ all postponements due to covid. The main thrust of their argument was that they’ve done everything properly, so why can’t everyone else?

It’s not clear exactly what they’re hoping to get from this, they talk about how they’ve sacrificed their competitive edge to secure player safety and fulfil fixtures. This ignores the fact since being in League 1 they’ve finished 20th twice, 19th once and are currently 18th – their season looks pretty much on-par with their competitiveness in previous years. What do they want? Special bonus points for self-righteousness?

They’ve become a funny club; the original phoenix club, resurrected from a gross injustice, re-formed as little more than a park team, dragged back through the divisions, now they’ve reclaimed their spiritual home. There’s so much to admire, but it seems that we now don’t admire them enough. The EFL must investigate, and if teams are found not to be as real as Wimbledon, then they should be punished. Idealistic and principled to the point of being unpalatably radical – the Jeremy Corbyn of football.

Ultimately, covid will do what covid does. Wimbledon may have a god-complex with an percieved ability to control the virus, but in reality, the virus chooses who it infects and how far it spreads. In that sense, football is a level playing field and all we can hope to do is manage the situations as they arise. To write letters to the EFL about how great they are and how awful everyone else is seems like an act of hubris.

Wimbledon’s misfortune is that they’ve missed out on a couple of potentially lucrative Christmas games. It’s turned into a strange period; what is usually full of bustle has become more like a winter break. Christmas is usually a great disruptor, testing teams’ true resilience and their credentials for the rest of the season. In fact, for us at least, it’s become an opportunity to recharge the batteries and regain our competitiveness. My own Christmas has been very similar; no less than six plans have been canceled or curtailed due to covid, maybe Wimbledon want me to be investigated too.

As it happens, the one plan which did go off without a hitch was the one I’d managed to double-book with the game. The busy Christmas period usually consists of the Boxing Day game, a regular Saturday fixture and New Year. This year, with Christmas on a Saturday, the regular fixture was moved to Wednesday – the first non-Bank Holiday. I’d forgotten all that and assumed it was an afternoon kick-off; happily booking something for the evening with nobbyd and his family. He’d also planned to go to the game until he’d spotted the clash, so we ended up eating lasagne while furtively checking the scores.

Of course, the corollary to Wimbledon’s complaint about games being postponed when clubs are too weak to field a team is that games go ahead when clubs are strong enough to compete. We’re not only rested, we’re full of antibodies, having survived two outbreaks, if we are going to be battered by omicron over the next couple of months, we may be in a better position than most in terms of surviving it.

Having sacrificed our competitiveness and perhaps a point against Wigan – a game which, by rights, shouldn’t have gone ahead – we surged back to form against Wimbledon. They were the perfect opponents; for all their huffing and puffing about how mean the world is to them, despite their origin story, they’re just another one of those lower-division clubs which have become canon fodder for us this season. 

I don’t know how comfortable it is to admit this, because we all want to retain an earthy authenticity, but this season we’ve evolved into a bona fide promotion chasing side. We’ve bridged the divide from that batch of teams – including Wimbledon – who will bounce between League 1 and 2, we’re no longer on the coat tails of those who have ambitions for the Championship; we’re now one of them. Last night’s performance showed that in spades. For all Wimbledon’s grumbling, their mumbling about the disadvantages they face compared to other clubs, we’re currently in a very different space to them and no amount of EFL investigations is going to bridge that gap.

With the squad relatively fresh and hopefully free of the worst of covid and with fixtures coming at a steady pace, our calm, methodical winning formula seems to be withstanding any test put in front of it, as the dark clouds of covid gather, our chances of promotion seem grow with each passing week.

Match wrap: AFC Wimbledon 3 Oxford United 1

In September 2018, before we played Manchester City in the League Cup, the Guardian interviewed Cameron Norman, tracking his redemption story from rejection at Norwich to Oxford United via King’s Lynn in the seventh tier. That evening, Norman didn’t make the bench and only played one more league game before being shipped out on loan to Walsall the following January.

This isn’t an unusual September media story; devoid of much else to talk about, they’ll find a club, manager or player who has appeared to rise like a phoenix over the course of the opening games of the season. Accrington top of the table? Yes please.

If you track those stories over the longer-term, their subjects invariably sink back to obscurity as the natural order takes over. These stories fill gaps in the schedules while the real narratives figure themselves itself out.

Everyone is trying to find a signal in the noise; to find the thread, it’s like trying to work out whether a 600 page novel is worth the investment from the opening paragraphs. This season has been our best start under Karl Robinson, our second best at this level for 27 years and yet we’ve one point from nine on the road despite leading in each of the three games.

It’s very easy to draw a grand conclusion from the capitulation against Wimbledon; to question the substitutions which seemed to turn the game on its head, but whether this is the story of the season or of the moment is still to be understood. 

There are lessons to learn and adjustments to make. The most obvious is addressing our ability to give away leads. We’ve lost two and drawn one from winning positions; add the late equaliser by Burton in the League Cup and even the late pre-season defeat to Bristol Rovers and you’ve got yourself a trend. 

Our four centre-backs have an average age of twenty-six, which sounds OK until you consider that without John Mousinho – who’s unlikely to play much – the average drops to twenty-three. Jordan Thornily is the most experienced centre-back Karl Robinson has ever signed and he’s only 24 with less than 100 games experience. Robinson’s strategy (gamble?) seems to rely on finding stability over experience at the back, something he got with Rob Atkinson and Elliott Moore last season and John Mousinho and Rob Dickie the year before. In 2018/19, when we struggled, we switched around Dickie, Mousinho and Curtis Nelson, who all three played over 30 games. Ever-present Thornily has partnered Moore and Luke McNally for three games each so far. Add into the mix our new full-back combinations and we’ve got a new and unstable back-four. 

Is this a new story? The risk has been there for a couple of seasons. What isn’t clear is whether this is a blind spot or deliberate strategy, a club of our size can’t cover all its risks; some things you just go with, but we’ve flooded the squad in midfield and have experience in Gorrin and Henry to steady the ship if we need it, upfront we have Matty Taylor and Sam Winnall, who are both over-30. We’ve never really sought to add experience at the back, relying on the ageing Mousinho.

Earlier this year, when covid restrictions were lifted and we were registering 65,000 cases a day, there were predictions that they would sky rocket past 100,000 within weeks. Then cases actually went down to about 30,000, one epidemiologist suggested that the 65,000 could contain two waves; a short-term one based on unusual behaviours during the Euros and a longer-term wave reflecting more ‘typical’ behaviour and therefore transmissibility. Only close analysis will tell which is the equivalent of the short-term ‘September media story’ and which is the longer-term narrative. 

Likewise, for all we know, even though its the best start under Karl Robinson, this might be the slow start we’ve seen in previous years while the team get to know each other. Perhaps these wrinkles will iron themselves out and we’ll see momentum build, but it looks like, this time, we’ll be doing it from a higher base. This the shape we’ve seen in previous seasons; start slow and build. It might be that this is just a short-term ‘September story’; it’s worked in the past and has, broadly, worked so far this season, tactical errors but a strategic success? Perhaps.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Evans outsized

Saturday 17 April 2021

Fatberg Steve Evans was left swimming in a vat of his own high saturated frustration on Saturday as Oxford United came back from 2-0 to beat Gillingham 3-2 with three goals in the last fifteen minutes including two from Headington United’s Sam Long. Evans was fuming at the result; he hasn’t been this angry since his Deliveroo delivery driver said he couldn’t fit his order of 18 buckets of KFC in the boot of his Skoda Fabia.

Sunday 18 April 2021

Celtic’s Mark Wilson – who Celtic fans describe as the best player ever to play for the club called Mark Wilson – has said that former Oxford loanee Jonjoe Kenny – a player so good they named him thrice – shouldn’t be offered a permanent deal when his loan runs out. Celtic have had a shock this season as they’ve found other teams willing to score goals against them. Wilson doesn’t see Kenny as the man to cynically reclaim the Scottish game for the minority.  

Monday 19 April 2021

Asked about the European Super League, KRob implored the powers that be to look at the bigger picture; the future of all Saturday night family entertainment. He fears for the prospects for the future Steve Brooksteins and Honey Gs of this world if the plans were to go ahead – “This is about the game that we love and to take away the X-Factor is going to dampen the passion.” he said. 

Tuesday 20 April 2021

On the anniversary of the Milk Cup win, it was eighties throwback night on Tuesday as Oxford travelled to the new Plough Lane to face Wimbledon. Oxford thought Heaven Was a Place on Earth when they took the lead through Josh Ruffels, James Henry received a Lady in Red card after his handball on the line gave away a penalty. Wimbledon then got the Eye of the Tiger, scoring twice in quick succession to secure a 2-1 win.

Wednesday 21 April 2021

Jose’s son John Mousinho has been elected to the PFA Players’ Board, an important role in a time of significant turmoil in the game. It’s important to give the players a voice on issues such as club finances, head injuries and the globalisation of the game. It also gives Mous the opportunity to buy a new clipboard and some box files from Rymans; ‘Watermelon shaped pencil case? Don’t mind if I do.’

Thursday 22 April 2021

It was the Seven Minute Twenty-Eight Second Fans Forum on Tuesday with Niall don’t call me Niall, it’s Niall McWilliams. The first question was about the stadiumsituation which was rapidly followed by a question about the stadiumsituation and then a question about the stadiumsituation. To which the answers can be summarised as ‘maybe’. McWilliams confirmed that the club were working on the assumption that the ground would be working at 50% capacity with no away fans next season; think the atmosphere of playing Accrington Stanley on a Tuesday night, but every week.

Friday 23 April 2021

The Peterborough Telegraph have gone all jet packs and power pills and looked at the team of the season based on, woo, statistics. Three Oxford players have made the cut based on, woo, statistics. Jack Stevens has bettered his expected saves by 7.6%, Rob Atkinson has 2.6% progressive runs per 90 minutes, Alex Gorrin has defensive duel success of 62.07%. Surprisingly Sam Long isn’t there, even though he has 100% no interest in this kind of claptrap.

Match wrap: AFC Wimbledon 2 Oxford United 1

After the Gillingham game I created a spreadsheet in an attempt to calculate our chances of making the play-offs this season. I do this quite often around this time of year as a way of managing my anxiety and reassuring myself that things are going to be OK. 

I’d predicted that we would beat Wimbledon but that Portsmouth would defeat Swindon, Ipswich would see off Northampton and Charlton would draw to Plymouth. I was wrong on all counts. 

The game against Wimbledon was played against a curious backdrop with the spectacular implosion of the European Super League. It felt like a ruling family being systematically executed in a military coup as each club announced their departure from the project. Meanwhile we carried on like the string quartet playing on the deck of the Titanic as it sank.

A lot has been said about the European Super League, about its unfairness, the greed and the impact it will have on other clubs. What was never mentioned was how stultifying boring it would be; I can’t conceive how it would offer anything better than what’s on offer now. Even now prestige Champions League games between the top clubs barely raises a ripple of interest in me due to the general over-saturation of the game. I don’t know why it would be better if it were guaranteed to happen every single year. Has nobody heard that scarcity increases value? 

Perhaps outside Europe, where there is less appreciation of the perils of promotion and relegation, the proposal seems plausible. Perhaps that highlights that it’s not just about more meaningful games; the ESL would likely become a touring circus travelling to where the demand was. The multi-billion-pound fantasy of playing matches in front of 90,000 Chinese or Qatari half-interested fans would come a big step closer. That said, even fans who did engage with it would surely eventually realise that football’s value is not in the quality of the passing shooting and tackling but in the perverse joy of uncertainty and instability.

My spreadsheet, which despite my inherent bias doesn’t see us achieving a play-off spot, is a case in point; four predictions, all incorrect. Proof that you cannot predict what will happen next in League 1 with any certainty. And, as frustrating the result was, that’s not something I’d want to give up. 

The performance itself was full of energy and attacking intent and we looked largely in control for long periods. A lot of this is down to James Henry’s return from injury; he alone appears to be the difference between us achieving the play-offs and not.

Having got our noses in front, we looked pretty comfortable and even had a bit of swagger as shown by Cameron Brannigan’s audacious free kick from inside our half. But, that rich vein of confidence wasn’t likely to last forever.

Then came the moment that changed it all. The penalty incident was a quadruple whammy; not only did we concede a penalty, a goal and go down to 10 men, Henry’s dismissal rules him out for the rest of the season. It surely puts paid to any play-off ambitions. It’s these moments, where seasons pivot and uncertainty strikes, that make football such a compelling watch. Those involved in the European Super League wanted to remove that uncertainty to protect their investments. But that’s like wanting to have wild sensible sex; it’s one or the other, you can’t have both.

Once the penalty had been converted and Henry had been cosigned to the dressing room, we reverted quite quickly to the team that have we’ve been in long stretches this year; full of energy, full of endeavour, full of effort but lacking in structure, calmness and a clear head. If we do want to progress, we can’t be just rely on Henry to provide that.

According to my spreadsheet, if you’re interested, Charlton seem the most likely team to make the play offs now, but it’s far from certain given their run-in compared to others. It’s very likely there’ll be more twists and turns before the season is out and while it seems unlikely that we will be the victors it will come down to who can time their run of form the best, which implies a degree of control over your performance, which nobody truly has.

In the context of the evening where the biggest clubs in Europe became the humblest, to watch a game which went from expectation to elation to despair and frustration in just 90 minutes was a timely reminder of why football is such a great game. Although the season could be over and the result is disappointing, I find myself enjoying being part of such a fluid and unpredictable world. 

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Wam! Bam! Thank you, Sam

Saturday 26 December 2020

Like GLS’ approach to sharing a tub of Celebrations, Oxford left with the bounty against Wimbledon after a 2-0 win on Boxing Day. Despite goals from Matty Taylor and Jordan Obita, star of the show was goalkeeper Jack Stevens who made a string of saves to prevent The Dons from getting back into the game. We haven’t seen reactions like that since the time GLS’ mum opened a crotchless pearl thong from his dad in front of nan one Christmas. 

Sunday 27 December 2020

Poor old Glyn Hodges is bemused by his team’s inability to score against Oxford yesterday. After creating a host of chances, they left with nothing. Hodges is looking on the bright side; “we created a lot of chances against a side, for me, that were the best in this division by a country mile…” he said causing us to beam with pride “…last season.” he added. Oh.

Monday 28 December 2020

GLS has found his best gold lame jacket and slicked down his combover with half a tub of brylcreem because it’s time to announce… CoVid Postponement Of The Week. Yes, our game against Doncaster Rovers has been postponed on 5th January. The game is expected to be rescheduled for 63rd Jantembuary 2028. 

Meanwhile Cowboy Chris Cadden could be about to mount his trusty steed and head back to the old country after it was revealed Columbus Crew may seek to off load him. Both Oxford and Hibs are said to be interested.

Tuesday 29 December 2020

Headington United’s Sam Long was the star of the show on Tuesday night scoring a wonder goal at Plymouth Argyle in a 3-2 win. Long burst out of his own half, exchanged passes with Daryl Clare and slotted home having run some 60 yards to score. Some didn’t think Long had it in his legs, but he’s been doing double shifts down at the Headington quarry in between games. 

Wednesday 30 December 2020

If Boris Johnson styles himself as the pandemic’s Winston Churchill, then KRob is becoming its Vera Lynn. The nation’s sweetheart has been on Radio 4’s Today Programme (woo! Get you) complaining that the lower leagues have got sloppy with their CoVid testing regimes. He then prepared himself to sing a rousing chorus of The White Cliffs of Dover, but there suddenly wasn’t time.

Elsewhere, it’s been revealed that Oxford were the 8th best team in League 1 in 2020, GLS has been pouring over the stats trying to glean some meaning from that fact, to which there’s none.

Thursday 31 December 2020

Rangers manager Steven Gerrard’s quest to create McOxford at Ibrox could be about to take a step closer. John Lundstram may be set for a move after turning down a new contract at Sheffield United. No less an authority on all things John Lundstram-related – yes, Gabi Agbonlahor – has said he’d jump at the chance. Next week: why George Waring holds the key to Auld Firm dominance by Lee Cattemole.

Friday 1 January 2021

Oxford visit Burton Albion tomorrow looking to make it four wins in a row. The Brewers haven’t had a permanent manager since the departure of Nigel Clough in the summer. Burton’s taste in managers is like a two-year old fussy eater who will only eat pasta or chips for tea as Jimmy Flloyd Hasselbaink returns for his 227th stint in charge.

Midweek fixture: Oxford United’s biggest rivals… ranked

How do you measure a rivalry? Location? Envy? Superiority? Or is it just a feeling? A few weeks ago, I asked you who you thought were our biggest rivals. Well, here’s the top nineteen.

19. Peterborough United

Let’s not get carried away; it doesn’t take many votes to become our 19th biggest rival. This one is the result of a brooding dislike following the curtailing of last season and the antics of the Peterborough hierarchy.

18. Cambridge United

Really? I’m surprised so many lazy Sky Sports commentators voted. The tenuous varsity link between the two cities has never turned made it into the stands in terms of a rivalry.

17. Queen’s Park Rangers

While many of these lower rivals are based on a single issue, any rivalry with QPR is surely based on a single game, 34 years ago at Wembley.

16. Coventry City

Maybe a bit of a surprise to some, but if you live in the north of the county, you may be more familiar with Coventry fans than other parts.

15. Sunderland

The biggest team in our division probably attracts a few ‘pick me’ votes, but the added link of Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven and Chris Maguire, mean that Sunderland make the list.

14. Stevenage

The team that denied us promotion from the Conference in 2010, but most likely, any rivalry is down to one man and his drinks break; Graham Westley.

13. Wimbledon

Familiarity breeds contempt, Oxford and Wimbledon have shared many seasons together over a very long time. Alongside Luton, they’re the only team we’ve played in both the top flight and the Conference.

12. Bristol City

I can’t fathom this one, we’ve played each other once in the last eighteen years.

11. Crewe Alexandra

In almost any other season, Crewe wouldn’t attract a vote, but the vitriol surrounding their double postponement earlier this season adds a bit of spice to an otherwise dormant relationship. The only rivalry based on not playing any games.

10. Cheltenham Town

Into the top ten and we’re beginning to touch on more sensible rivalries. Cheltenham Town’s relationship must be down to location.

9. Leyton Orient

Some will never let it go; some fourteen years ago Leyton Orient came to the Kassam looking for a win to secure promotion. They did it in the last minute, which sent us down to the Conference. They danced on our pitch, apparently, though I’d left by then. Some will never forget or forgive.

8. MK Dons

The newest rivalry in the list. It’s not exactly what you’d call white hot, but geographical location has always promised a good large following and made MK Dons a decent away day.

7. Portsmouth

Portsmouth sat on their own in terms of votes – some twenty ahead of MK Dons, and a similar number behind Northampton. We’ve shared many seasons with Portsmouth, I think secretly we’re a bit envious of their size and history, which makes beating them all the more sweet.

6. Northampton Town

Now we’re into the real rivalries. First up Northampton Town, another team whose path we’ve crossed countless times. Added spice came from Chris Wilder leaving us for them in 2014, then keeping them up. Then two years later, Wilder took them up as champions despite Michael Appleton’s assertion we were the better team.

5. Luton Town

There’s a genuinely visceral dislike for Luton Town, we’ve played them in the top division and the Conference, we’ve been promotion rivals and they’ve poached our manager. All of which adds up to a relationship with a bit of bite.

4. Bristol Rovers

A team we’ve played with almost monotonous regularity, any rivalry is spiced up by the fact we’re both very capable of winning away in the game. Matty Taylor helped turn the heat up a notch, he hates the Gas, pass it on.

3. Wycombe Wanderers

It’s not a derby, but of all the non-derbies out there, this is the biggest one for us. We won decisively in a key game on the way to promotion in 1996, they beat us in the FA Cup when we were on a roll in 2010, six years later we secured promotion against them, and last year they secured promotion against us at Wembley. It’s not a derby, but it’s getting there.

2. Reading

Perhaps at the expense of Reading? We haven’t played each other in 16 years and not as equals in 19. But, a rivalry still exists, apparently, though it’s kind of like the Korean War – it’s still technically happening, but in reality it’s made up of irritating each other on social media.

1. Swindon Town

The big one. But, this list wasn’t really about finding out who our biggest rival were.