The wrap: Oxford United 0 AFC Wimbledon 0

They say drowning is pleasurable. Perhaps it’s the sense of helplessness; that your destiny is secured and you are no longer faced with the competing forces of life in general.

There was a similar beatific calm about our draw with Wimbledon, we’re pretty much safe, we can’t go up, we couldn’t even change our league position as both 11th and 13th were mathematically out of reach.

I kind of like it, I mean, like when you’re drowning – you may enjoy while but you know you’d miss being alive – I’d ultimately miss the lack of competition and purpose, but for now, in sitting in stasis, I quite enjoy the moments of peace.

I sat with Brinyhoof, chatting about life and his success as one of the world’s leading fantasy football league managers (Bundesliga edition). In front of us, we played well, made chances and scored none of them. Afterwards – with the players still leaving the pitch – I summarised the game as ‘full of entertainment, though I can’t remember a single moment of it’.

They, of course, have no such luxuries, with a very real relegation battle on their hands, and you can tell why. Like Walsall and Bradford, both of whom we’ve beaten recently, they’re just not very good. Wally Downes, a veteran of the Crazy Gang; the grimly romanticised Wimbledon team of the eighties, is turning the club from a fan-driven metrosexual cosmopolitan snowflake liberal wet dream into an unpleasant unit in the image of his own playing career. It’s probably out of necessity rather than anything else, they were always in for a battle to stay up, though perhaps they’ve taken the term battle a little too literally.

That said, it didn’t really affect us, only Aaron Ramsdale’s heroics in their goal prevented it from being a comfortable win. At any other stage of the season, we’d have been apoplectic, but there was a general shrug of the shoulders. You play well and don’t win; it happens.

In the 69th minute, Karl Robinson introduced Jamie Mackie, Jordan Graham and James Henry in a triple substitution. It was a slightly odd move; an unnecessary act of aggression – we were in control of a game that ultimately met little. But he felt it necessary to make a triple substitution by bringing on senior players, which is usually a sign that the game must be won at all costs.

Maybe it was a reminder that cruising through the last few games of the season is not acceptable. You get a sense that Jamie Mackie, in particular, is unlikely to let the intensity of his game drop whatever it is he’s playing for.

But, this does raise the question about how you approach the final games of the season – in 2015, Michael Appleton’s first year, it became an opportunity to build momentum, pre-season before the pre-season. It could be an opportunity for fringe players to prove themselves, in the context of new contracts; although I think most of those decisions make themselves. Perhaps it’s a chance to blood some young players.

We need to be thankful that the form we’ve had came at the time it did; our run-in – Charlton, Shrewsbury, Doncaster, Luton is pretty tough, if there was much hanging on them, we might fear for ourselves. But, they offer a good opportunity to see just how good we are (or aren’t).

I don’t think this is about cruising to the end of the season as tempting as that is, it’s about seeing who has the appetite to play at an intensity needed to mount a decent challenge next year. After all, if you can motivate yourself when there’s nothing riding on it, you should be able to motivate yourself when there’s all to play for.

The wrap – Wimbledon 2 Oxford United 1

Football clubs have funny structures; at their most important point – the interface between the machine that funds the club and the machine that delivers the benefit is one person; the manager. If it were a car, it would be like having a single screw holding the engine to the chassis.

Clubs are beginning to wise up to the idea that they have this single point of failure. A club like Watford, for example, have changed their manager almost annually in recent years, while the machine the sits behind them has remained fairly stable. Despite this apparent flux, they have progressed year on year.

Managers don’t last very long; yes, owners are often hasty in their decision making and sometimes managers attain positions they are barely capable of leading on the basis of their connections or playing record. But, it’s not always a simple question of competence.

Being a manager is a ridiculously stressful job and often its that, not their ability, which results in their departure. They’re the aforementioned single point of failure, they have to explain everything to the media, they are in an occupation which has only 92 positions in the country of which no more than one or two are vacant at any one time. With the odds stacked against you; it’s surprising that any manager is wholly rational and logical in the first place; if you applied logic to football management as a career choice, you wouldn’t choose it in the first place.

Stress comes from being overwhelmed with the information you’re expected to process. Sometimes there’s too much, sometimes it makes no sense and you can’t find the links and logic. The log-jam of unprocessed information causes your brain to go into overdrive trying to process it day and night, or sometimes shutting down and pretending its not happening.

Karl Robinson is stressed. Not because he’s stone cold incompetent; what he achieved at MK Dons and Charlton both show he is capable of managing a football club to a degree of success. But, his current situation hasn’t happened to him before. Injuries, performances that don’t produce goals or results, an owner he struggles to communicate with, fans that don’t trust him; all at the same time, one overlapping another like waves.

Even if he has been given assurances, there must be some part of him that knows his job is under threat. Add to this the knowledge that reputations are rapidly crushed in football; one failure and your reputation can drop like a stone. It’s not just a question of proving your competence, it’s also that your failures make you toxic from a PR perspective.

The signs are there – last week he skulked his way through his interview feeling sorry for himself, yesterday – after the defeat to Wimbledon – he was even less coherent. There was something about him doing his job by preparing the team in the middle section of the field, it was, he said, down to players to put the ball in the back of the net. The subtext was that it was them to blame, not him.

I think I know what he meant, when you’re in front of goal, someone has to take a risk and shoot. But the idea that once the ball reaches the penalty box, the manager’s job is done is clearly nonsense. Anyone who saw Liam Sercombe score 17 goals from midfield in 2015/16 – frequently following up missed opportunities – knows that you can increase the chances of scoring through a pre-defined way of playing.

If you add to this his decision to take the captaincy off Curtis Nelson or drop Cameron Norman because – as stated publicly – he’s not playing well (not because Sam Long did well against Manchester City), suggests to me that he might be being honest and straight forward, but he’s not thinking about how his actions might impact the players or the fans.

It’s important to separate out Karl Robinson, the person, from any stresses he is currently experiencing. I don’t believe he is an incompetent charlatan, who has managed to trick his way through his career. I do believe that he’s struggling to process the problems he has and I question whether he will get the support or headspace to recover his rational side. And, for that reason, you have to question whether – for him and the club – the relationship is sustainable.

The wrap – Oxford United 3 Wimbledon 0

There’s a group of fans that sit behind me that I regularly tweet about; their analysis is endlessly unforgiving; if the ball goes into our half invariably one of them will groan ‘Oh, here we go’ suggesting the inevitability of us conceding. Any attack that breaks down is chastised for having ‘no end product.’. Any goalscorer who hasn’t found the net in the previous 20 consecutive games is labelled as ‘having done nothing’ for the club.

They were at it again on Saturday; some of our intricate, spectacular build-up play was viewed as ‘all very well, but where was the shot?’. No thought is given to the fact that stringing passes together and hitting the back of the net is an exceedingly difficult thing to do. Nothing about using the ball to pull apart the opposition’s shape and structure. No consideration, even, for the physical impossibilities of shooting with their back to goal, 30 yards from goal with two defenders jockying you out of play.

These are people who view a spectacular save to be lucky – ‘Ooh, he only just got to that’, and not the product of what Simon Eastwood had spends his entire week preparing for.

They’re not alone; quite understandably someone like Richardinho enjoys cult status for his general demeanour. But our apparent return to form over the last week has coincided with us being able to play our dependable players in their most suited position.

James Henry gave a virtuoso performance, but not in a way that would have songs featuring his name cascading down the terraces. He understood when to keep things simple, when to pass, when to turn back, when to try something audacious. He pulled Wimbledon apart down the right flank creating chaos which goalscorers Xemi and Ricardinho benefited from.

John Mousinho looks increasingly comfortable in the middle of defence with Curtis Nelson, while up front Wes Thomas played with measured precision. It’s an understated quality that has been absent in recent years. The systematic dismantling of Wimbledon, like those against Gillingham, Portsmouth and Peterborough, have been built on the stable influences of these new dependables, they may not thrill those sitting behind me, but they might just be thanking them in May.  

Weekly wrap – AFC Wimbledon 2 Oxford United 1, Oxford United 4 Rochdale 0

January was always looking to be a tricky month. It’s always a bit of a challenge juggling the transfer window and a schedule disrupted by cup games. Last year, the stakes were higher with promotion on the cards, this year we were on the road for almost the whole month, apart from THAT game in THAT trophy and THAT doesn’t really count at all (or does it?).

We also went into the New Year on the back of a goal drought and apparently poor form, although this was a little overstated. If January’s road trip HAD gone wrong, then things could have looked rather bleak. Instead, we’ve seen three wins in four, four in five if you count THAT game, and we’ve scored 13 goals.

The blip was against Wimbledon which proved, if this needed proving, that we are not particularly good against more direct, robust teams. But otherwise, where has it all going right?

I’ve consumed most of the games via brief YouTube clips; each one seems to start with Marvin Johnson collecting the ball and running at the opposition’s defence. Johnson’s ever ascending stock has been key to the upturn in form. He’s like a high performance sports car, he’s so effortlessly powerful, he doesn’t look like he’s going quickly, but everything around him goes backwards.

Ryan Taylor is on his best run in the team, featuring in the last 14 games. This will have helped him settle into the system as well as build his fitness. As well as three goals himself, he’s helped 10 different players score in those 14 games, showing, I think, the value of a centre forward who can hold the ball, occupy defenders and bring others into the game.

Last year, January was like a big night out; epic fun with a crucifying hangover. Last year we won four of the first five games of the year, but only won one of the next six. It’s something we have to guard against.

The Newcastle FA Cup game is a free-hit; a bit like Swansea last year, they’ll play a second string and we’ll be up for it. If we don’t win, nobody will blink, if we do, then we’re getting to the interesting end of the competition.

Talking of interesting ends of competitions; the other curiosity is the EFL Trophy. With the Under-23 makeweights all gone the competition is gaining a different complexion. Yes, I understand the principles of the protests and the point has been well made. But ultimately, I’ve seen Oxford play at Wembley three times in 40 years. That’s a lot of time not seeing us play at Wembley. And life is very short. There is also the added incentive of finals against Luton, Wycombe or Coventry which would all make another grand day out. When does sticking to your principles just simply become pigheadedness?

Wimbledon wrap – Oxford United 1 AFC Wimbledon 3

In the same week that Donald Trump talked about grabbing women by the pussy, I heard someone using the word ‘awfulising’. If this isn’t the end of days, I don’t know what is.

Awfulising, apparently, is where you have a minor anxiety and your mind runs amok creating an entirely imaginary world of disaster.

There’s a bloke near me who habitually groans ‘oh, here we go’ every time the opposition go over the half way line. Plus, of course, there’s the common knee jerk reaction that fans have when one poor touch or pass turns a player into a lazy, hopeless waste of space.

It’s natural to awfulise in football; you only want one outcome and by-and-large that isn’t confirmed until the final whistle. But, sometimes it’s worth taking a step back; Michael Appleton’s selection against Wimbledon seemed to be based on taking an early initiative. Alex MacDonald is an impact player, he’ll never give up, but he struggles to maintain his all action game for 90 minutes. So, you have to decide at which end of the game you want him to have maximum impact, Kyle Hemming is similar. With both starting everything pointed towards going for an early knock-out.

What Michael Appleton didn’t seem to account for is that, after a ropey start to the season, Wimbledon seemed to have dusted off an old playbook from the 80s; they’ve gone physical. 

New-Wimbledon are cast as a metrosexual hipster club; the romantics’ favourites. Culturally they’re the complete opposite of the Crazy Gang. So, it’s easy to think of them as a soft touch, and that’s what caught us out.

Chey Dunkley will not have a tougher afternoon all year; he’s usually a match for anyone in a physical contest, and apart from the goal he seemed to contain Elliot pretty well. But once Elliot had gone, he then had to deal with Tyrone Barnett.

It came as a bit of a shock to the referee who seemed to struggle to distinguish between physical but fair and physical and unfair. Early on, he was happy to book players for physical challenges, then having made a rod for his own back, he had to let rough challenges go just to keep things credible.

By the time it started to count, he was lost. It’s rare that a game pivots on a single decision. Generally, I think referees have much less influence over a game than managers would sometimes have you believe. But Dean Parrett’s sliding challenge on Wes Thomas just before the second goal defined the game.

So, let’s get to it; in the ground it looked a certain foul, but the ground level camera showing the referee’s view made it look like he got the ball. However, he was clearly overstretching and you can argue he was out of control by the time he put his challenge in. The camera from behind confirmed it, showing him off the ground and therefore out of control.

But then, so was John Lundstram in the challenge that got him sent off against Stevenage and banned for Wembley last year. We certainly didn’t think the Lundstram deserved his red, and as a principle, I don’t agree with trial by multiple TV angles in football. Therefore, my view is that it was probably a foul, but I can see why the referee allowed it to stand.

In addition to the goal that resulted, we were shell shocked, which was the root cause of conceding the third. And after that, it was all over. Had it been a foul, the outcome of the game would have been different.

So, ultimately we were tactically outmanoeuvred; we came to take charge and exploit Wimbledon’s supposed soft belly. In the end we were caught out and didn’t react properly. We will, I hope, learn from the experience; next time, rather than awfulising at a setback, maybe we need to grab the game by the pussy.

Wimbledon and York wraps

AFC Wimbledon 1 Oxford United 2 

If in November you’d told Oxford fans we would head into games without Jake Wright, John Lundstram, Kemar Roofe and George Baldock, The Samaritans would have been launching one of those helplines they set up for teenage girls when boybands split up.

All good teams are built on a strong spine which, if damaged, can create real problems for a club’s aspirations. In 2009/10 we had a strong spine which shot us to the top of the Conference. In January Luke Foster was shipped out, Adam Murray succumbed to injury and James Constable’s goals dried up. Chris Wilder frantically tried to replace that spine with a series of speculative loan signings. The longer it went on, the more frantic the flailing became. Eventually Jake Wright overcame his early shakiness, Adam Chapman overcame his impending prison sentence and James Constable found his shooting boots. By that point the title was lost, but thankfully, we still had the play-offs.

The loss of Wright, Lundstram and Roofe over a couple of games and Michael Appleton could have been forgiven for struggling to replace them. But, in Dunkley, Ruffels and Bowery, we seem to have more than adequate cover. What is quite interesting about this trio is that they’re not like-for-like replacements, they are much more typical of a decent League 2 player; strong and direct.

To some extent this plays to our advantage because, as with the win over Wimbledon, sometimes you just have to dig in and grind out results. Ruffels sticks to what he does well, Dunkley is an immense physical presence and in Bowery we actually have a striker who is prepared to be a direct threat. Of all three, Bowery’s willingness to go for the jugular is a real bonus at this stage in the season.

Who knew that if you rip the spine out of the side, you’d find another spine?

Oxford United 4 York City 0

Someone once told me about ‘Le point’; this is the point where absolute catastrophe and absolute success meet. When you reach ‘Le point’ it feels like the world is about to collapse, and then miraculously, everything seems to right itself. It is rare to have success without, at some point, reaching ‘Le point’.

The game against York felt like we’d reached ‘Le point’. After two home defeats in a row and no win at the Kassam since the Swansea game, some started muttering about home curses and post-Christmas collapses. It could have been enough to derail our promotion push. Another defeat, against a team sitting in 23rd place with one away win all season and on a run of 3 consecutive defeats, and we could have gone into an irreversible slide.

But,York were as poor as their position suggests and despite a turgid first half, you always felt that as the game progressed we would stretch them to the point where the elastic would snap and the goals would start to flow.

More significant is what happened around us; Accrington and Plymouth lost, meaning Stanley’s games in hand are no longer the concern they were. The teams in the promotion and play-off places dropped a total of 12 of the 18 points collectively available to them. It was all gain from our perspective. There is absolutely no need to fear Plymouth on Saturday, but with three wins under our belt, in terms of the blocks of games we play and the points we need to accumulate, this is a free weekend.

AFC Wimbledon wrap – Oxford United 1 AFC Wimbledon 0

We knew everything about Saturday was going to be nothing like everything about Tuesday. Smaller crowd, less inspiring performance; we knew it was coming.

But we coped; we survived the inevitable lull. Under Chris Wilder, the parties were good but the hangovers were horrific. This time, we suffered the consequences of our indulgence, survived, and we start afresh tomorrow.

George Baldock’s goal was a case of someone deciding that if you want a job doing, you might as well do it yourself. The game looked like it was meandering and it needed something different. It was a restorative full English breakfast of a strike. As someone said on the radio; just how good are MK Dons’ full-backs if George Baldock is out on loan?

Ryan Taylor’s performance was similar to Tuesday’s where he got a standing ovation. He was involved in both goals against Swindon, on Saturday he created the chance for Liam Sercombe whose shot rattled the bar. Had that gone in, which it should have done, it would have been three assists in two games.

But, the general mood was that he was back to being sub-standard. The real difference wasn’t his performance, it was that we weren’t playing Swindon.

He’s accused of lacking pace; which unless someone can find a way of fundamentally changing his physiology, is hardly his fault. There’s a broader view he’s just not good enough; but if Tuesday’s standing ovation was genuine; then he clearly can be.

Big target men always look clumsy when they’re not scoring goals. Paul Moody went though long periods of looking like a three-legged cow, but he ended up a goalscoring legend.

In the 1995/6 Moody’s scored in only three league games up to January. Then we adopted a more direct approach and used him as a battering ram from the bench. He scored 12 goals between January and May and we were promoted.

Taylor offers a different option – he can hold the ball up, make defenders lives a misery, and can defend. His inclusion is usually out of necessity, but the team needs to learn how to get the best out of him. His attributes may be critical in the deep winter. There’s no need to revolutionise our tactical philosophy to accommodate him, but he shouldn’t be so readily dismissed just because of a lack of goals.