Match wrap – MK Dons 1 Oxford United 2

“A famous bon mot asserts that opinions are like arseholes, in that everyone has one. There is great wisdom in this… but I would add that opinions differ significantly from arseholes, in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined.

Tim Minchin

The criticism of Boris Johnson and his government hosting Christmas parties and then lying about it during last year’s lockdown is completely justified. It is not so much their sense of entitlement that should be criticised, but the damage they have done to achieving any kind of collective action against the pandemic. 

The fury extended to Allegra Stratton, the government’s spokesperson caught on camera all but confirming the party happened. She is more a product of than a contributor to the culture. Inside the bubble, behaviours can be justified – everyone is doing it, nobody said otherwise. It’s no different to the unspoken collective decision of fans at The Kassam to not wear masks at games. It’s probably wrong, but we still do it. Confronted with the reality from the outside has clearly caused her a deep emotional trauma. There was a rabid pile-on with people picking apart her apology as an insincere sham. It should be possible to hold two apparently conflicting opinions – that the parties and lying is wrong, but that some of the individuals involved are genuinely mortified at their own behaviour. I hope someone is looking after her. 

Similar conflicts exist with MK Dons. For all the opprobrium surrounding their origins, there’s still a lot to admire. The parking is good, the people are friendly and the facilities are first class; we would kill for something similar. Even their commercial work is to be admired; whenever there’s a corner, an advert for Yokohama tyres flashes up because, well, they’re good on corners. Sadly there’s no advert for traffic wardens for each penalty or any promotion of dustbin men at a throw-in. Some people will have you believe that just because their origin story is wrong that everything else about MK Dons is wrong. It isn’t, in fact, as a modern football club, it’s pretty much a model to aspire to.

Filling the stadium will only come with success, based on their crowds, their fanbase – that is, the crowd they might expect without any boost from results – is not dissimilar to our own. It’s a big venue to generate an atmosphere in when it’s a third full. Otherwise, it’s a team lifted straight from a textbook of how to run a modern club.

Fittingly, the first half yesterday saw two teams drawing from the same textbook. Modern football is based heavily on possession and fitness, the aim is to move the ball around at pace until someone loses concentration and a gap appears. Most of the first half followed this pattern; they played down the flank drawing Sam Long out of position, exploited the gap he left and scored in what looked like slow motion. 

The finish looked like something you see on the training ground – the ball hitting the net was almost an aside, the interplay that led to that moment was the critical moment.

Despite the goal, both teams returned to their playbooks, moving the ball around at a reasonable pace without any real purpose. Mark Sykes broke free on the right to cross to Matty Taylor, but he was judged off-side. With both teams in anonymous monochromatic kits, they could have been filming for a training video. 

The stadium fell silent, the shouts of the players could be heard from the stands, the board went up to indicate the amount of injury time to be played – one minute – it was a half of virtually no incident.

With the stadium going cold, the players now into their third consecutive away game and the rain pummelling down, MK Dons could simply put the game into a sleeper hold. If they could keep us quiet, we’d run out of steam long before the final whistle and they could take the points. It was turning into a grim afternoon.

At half-time the wind slightly changed direction, blowing the rain into the stand, we’d been sheltered from the worst of it for the first half, now it was driving into our faces. The textbook wouldn’t save us now, unless we used it as shelter.

In the second half we looked sharper and more purposeful, we started to make inroads into Dons’ territory. Encouraging, but not surprising. We were always likely to rally at some point, and this was it, but time was against us. In reality, a second half has about half-an-hour of football, the final fifteen minutes is attritional, tactics – the textbook – are an irrelevance. We needed to get something on the board, a point would have been OK.  

The moment when football gives way was becoming evident; tackles became more petty, confrontations between players more edgy, the clinical nature of the first-half was eroded by tiredness and the cold. Just past the hour, we were into the danger zone, substitutions would disrupt the flow of the game, players would run out of steam, the chances of getting anything from the game would seep away. 

Set pieces became important because they rely less on athleticism, Herbie Kane, swings in a near post free-kick, Matty Taylor’s positional instinct gives him a space to nod the ball goalwards, the keeper flops and it squeezes in. A goal. Just in time.

The clock is relentless, we wait for the moment when both team concede to the draw, happy with the point. That’s what the textbook says, protect what you have. With the pages sticking together and the ink beginning to run, the book is finally cast aside. Football is no longer about passing and movement, it’s about what’s left to give, what spirit remains, the will to win. 

The Dons have little in the tank, they continue with that most modern of afflictions – playing from the back. Theirs is a particularly extreme version, their keeper receives goal-kicks from his centre-back putting them under unnecessary pressure. It’s like they’re trying to prove a point, that they’re a proper football team, who does things properly, like the textbook says.

There’d been warnings, not just in the game, but last season too. It’s a strategy that frequently gets them in a mess. The keeper plays the ball out, Marcus McGuane who is fresh, presses the recipient to make a tired pass back to the keeper. His touch is poor in the rain and Nathan Holland pounces. For all Holland trickery, this is more prosaic; just get something on it, anything. The deflection squirts the ball across the pitch, the keeper’s prone on the floor, Mark Sykes is twenty yards out. Compose. Compose.

He takes a touch, and slides it home. 2-1. A goal of pure spirit. Now it’s just about holding on; the rain drives down, the ball skids ominously, they break down the right and Simon Eastwood spreads himself to block from three yards out. Moments later Jordan Thornily is dismissed, we’re now scrapping for the points. The resulting free-kick takes an age to set up, the tension rises, and then… the shot is plops into Eastwood’s hands. We’re home.

There is nothing wrong with the textbook, we gain more than we lose by using it. But, as MK Dons have found, it will only take you so far, you can’t create spirit and determination from a business plan.

Match wrap – Oxford United 3 Fleetwood Town 1

With ten players out, no goalkeepers and half the club isolating you can’t help but think that, on one level, Karl Robinson is absolutely loving this. This could be his Battle of Stalingrad, his Rorke’s Drift. The armouries and smelting factories would drain at the end of the day to fill the stands and defend the citadel, condemming ourselves to an inevitable, but glorious, death for a cause that’s bigger than any one of us. 

If Fleetwood were cutthroat Zulus, then they were Guardian-reading savages with an appreciation of nuance and an understanding of the art of compromise. For all the expectation that we’d have our backs against the wall and that they would jimmy away cruelly at our obvious weaknesses, they seemed particularly sympathetic of our situation, allowing us time to find our feet and rhythm. In fact, they were so desperately impotent, the game has cost manager Simon Grayson his job.

The headline of having only fourteen senior players available doesn’t account for those carrying other niggles and worries; the drink, money, gambling or family problems that can fuzzy anyone’s brain, if you were legally able to leave your house, then pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and play on. Our shoulders relaxed and we settled to a tempo which, even if it was determined by our resources, was at least one the players were comfortable with. 

From wondering how we’d cover the gaps in the squad, the players were able to express their own personalities. It was like the epic victory over Swindon in 2012 when an injury crisis was so deep it required a complete remodelling of the very character of our starting eleven. As a result, we were less predictable and harder to play against. Gavin Whyte up front didn’t need to be Matty Taylor, Jamie Hanson could be the rugged utility player he’s always been rather than try to emulate the more cultured Anthony Forde.

The early goals settled the game meaning we needed to be professional and disciplined rather than full of blood and guts. Fleetwood, so often a frustratingly competent side, were simply not very good, which was a relief. 

Midway through the first half, Luke McNally went to ground forcing into stark relief the precariousness of our situation. Darting from the bench was not the distinctive shock of blonde hair that is Amy Cranston but a couple of more anonymous physios extracted from central casting. 

Cranston is a distinctive presence on the bench with her being, you know, a woman. Her absence reinforced the extent of the challenge; there was also no Wayne Brown, no John Mousinho; we talked about the players, but the crisis ran deeper than that. The anonymity on the bench alongside Karl Robinson was like going to watch Oasis, only to later realise it’s actually Beady Eye.

McNally’s injury highlighted how little scope there was for change. Lose him and there was nobody remotely suitable to take his place. It seemed to heighten the sensitivity to the problem – from eminent comfort, there was a sense this could get bad, really bad. Moments later, Hansen crumpled under a challenge and while everyone catastrophised about whether he was literally dead or not, Fleetwood waltzed through to squeeze the ball past Trueman for 2-1.

We’ve had goalkeeping crises before, but not one that involved our most senior fit keeper being unavailable the game clashed with Cubs. Managers are like pigs snuffling truffles when it comes to unearthing goalkeepers, whether that’s Luke McCormick or Jordan Archer, they always seem capable of digging one out from the bowels of Football League. We were grateful to have his experience, even if it was less than fifty games in the last seven years. He had no way of understanding the nuances of back four in front of him, he had to busk it; take everything on face value and play along best he could.

The third goal from Nathan Holland was a reminder that despite everything, there’s still quality at the heart of the squad. Karl Robinson praised the owners for their investment, he’s right, Holland’s fine finish was most likely cast in the board room and the decision to invest in the squad’s resilience. Nobody could have predicted just how valuable that would be back in the summer.

The emphasis of the game then changed. This is a two-part drama and Robinson needed to be mindful of Rotherham on Saturday. If someone like Dan Agyei has an hour of full-gas performance in him, how do you best spread that across the two games knowing he’ll need to feature in both?

We needed to avoid unnecessary pressure; another goal may not have changed the ultimate result, but it could have encouraged Fleetwood to take a few more risks which is always going to increase the chance of a kick, pull or injury. We needed to keep them passive and compliant, the ease with which we did is testament to what has been built at the club.

It wasn’t backs against the wall, it wasn’t gritty and determined, it was professional and clinical. It wasn’t Rorke’s Drift, although that maybe yet to come before this drama is fully played out.