The wrap – Gillingham, Bradford and MK Dons

It was generally acknowledged that December and the Christmas period would define our season and so it has proved to be. It seems most likely that the play-offs are beyond us, and even if we manage to sneak in, then the last few games seem to prove we are still not ready for the Championship.

Whether this is a good thing or not is open to endless debate and probably depends on how impatient you are to see the club achieve its ambitions. The four Christmas games were, of course, overshadowed by the Wigan thrashing. But, looking objectively, they are league leaders and look well equipped to be in the same position at the end of the season, then we played sure-fire play-off contenders Bradford away. Plenty of other teams will lose both those fixtures this season. The problem with them being so close together is that it put pressure on the Gillingham and MK Dons games to pick up points. Four points (and three minutes from taking six) is actually a respectable, if not thrilling points total. So, although Wigan was a humiliation, as a block of results they were probably not wholly unexpected or as disastrous as initially perceived.
Defensively there are issues, of course, if you think that last year we had Edwards, Johnson, Dunkley and Nelson – three of whom can comfortably play in a division above. The back-four we have now is makeshift, each can compete in League 1, but together as a quartet there are issues. 
While MK Dons oscillated gently from boring organisation to blythe incompetence, our performance did show glimpses of what we saw earlier in the season. We were far more mobile in attack, something that has only become possible in the last week or so with the return of van Kessel, Obika and Mehmeti. You could also see the intention to keep moving the ball to pull teams out of shape. English fans are notorious for their affliction to passes going backwards, but it draws the opposition on, helping us to attack on the break. How many times in the last 15 years have we complained about not being able to break teams down at home? This can be a very effective way of doing it.

Of course, the ultimate ambition is to be competitive with the teams at the top of the division. But, there is little doubt that the Eales project was significantly disrupted during the summer, so being on par with last year is not an unrealistic ambition in the circumstances and, despite the disruption, that’s pretty much where we are.
Pep Clotet’s arrival coincided with the gutting of Michael Appleton’s squad. He filled the gap with people he knew he could trust and, more importantly, were available. He’s implied in interviews that he didn’t expect to have to fill so many holes in the squad. So, what we we have seen to date is not so much the end state, but glimpses of Clotet’s philosophy.

If December was a test of our current credentials on the pitch, January may be more important off it. While it’s unlikely that we’ll fix all the weaknesses in the squad, the nature of any signings we make could give us a clearer indiction of the real Pep Clotet model. 

MK Dons wrap – MK Dons 1 Oxford United 1

We now live in a post-Johnson world. With the Lundstram, Maguire and Sercombe deals preceding it, it seems an age since the only thing we had to talk about was football. Games happened between signings and speculation rather than the other way around. Take Saturday’s game against MK Dons, last year there was hyperbole around the size of following we took, this year there was barely a mention. The distraction is all with good reason; Experimental 361 blog says that there are only 5 clubs in the top five divisions with more churn in their squad.

Now we can hopefully begin to settle, not just until the next transfer window, but until the end of the season. The draw with MK Dons suggested that Johnson’s departure has been a good thing. In the games I’ve seen this year, there’s been plenty of talent on show, but little cohesion. A plan B without a plan A.

How might Johnson’s situation have impacted that? Obviously there’s the simple factor that all the while he was at the club but unavailable, there was potentially a Johnson sized hole in any plan, but also when a player gets a reputation as a multi-million pound man, he takes on a different guise. Up until the point he has a price tag, he’s just another player. Then he’s a £3million pound player; his ability has a quantity. Are players then a little more inclined to look to him for a solution? Do they miss him when he’s not there, cursing their bad luck on the fact that their star man is absent and therefore the cause of any problems or struggle?

Quite possibly. Certainly for once we looked better as a collective, greater than the sum of our parts. That’s because good teams are built not so much on talent, but on options. When one option eclipses all others, then it becomes much easier for your opponents to counter your threat.

Pep Clotet needs to develop a better understanding of the buttons he has to push to win games. His hand was forced to some extent by the relatively early loss of Tiendelli, although Aaron Martin looked solid when the defence was reshuffled. But, Clotet should have reacted more quickly to Dons’ growing threat as the second half wore on. But who to turn to? And when? And that is, currently, the challenge.

Certainly van Kessel and Obika need to learn to play together; there’s a partnership in there somewhere with Obika’s power and van Kessel’s pace, but is there the temperament to make it work? Ultimately Clotet has plenty to play with, with more still to come. The opening chaotic phase of reshaping his squad is now over, now is the time to find a groove, if it can be done before the clocks go back, then the season will start to look very promising.

MK Dons wrap – Oxford United 1 MK Dons 0

It’s hard to remember given the 42 days since our last home league game, but Fans Day felt a little like every other day to me. It was ironic that it was played against a team whose fans have the shallowest roots in the country. Perhaps it was a sly dig rather than a club promotion.
Irony is somewhat lost on MK Dons fans given their sledging of Rob Hall for turning down a contract in favour of us during the summer. The club practically re-wrote the book when it comes to betrayal in football. Not only is there the well documented looting of Wimbledon, surely most of their fans have betrayed other clubs to follow the Dons at some point.
Hall is one of the remarkable stories of the season. I wasn’t hopeful when he signed; he’d had a pressure-free cameo at the club a few years ago on loan from West Ham but had never become the ‘new Jermaine Defoe’ that was promised at the time. Coupled with a long term injury, it seemed likely that he’d end up wallowing on the fringes like Danny Rose did in his second stint at the club. 
But, his recovery from injury and instant return to form has been stunning. A few years ago, he would have been out for far longer and would have had to remodel his game to accommodate any residual effects of his injury. But, he’s come back as if nothing had happened, his pace and guile being a key reasons we’ve hit the form we have.
Dons are a functional if uninspiring unit, fitting given that’s how you might describe the retail parks and shopping centres that characterise their city. They compressed the game into a third of the field and left little space down the flanks creating a gravitational force that the players, let alone the ball, struggled to escape from.
At the start of the season we were being caught out by competent physical teams, but it’s a different story now. Ryan Ledson relishes the muck and bullets of a midfield battle, even John Lundstram seems more comfortable in a dog-fight than he used to. Curtis Nelson became a deep-lying ball-carrying midfielder – it takes some guts to dribble into such a melee knowing the gap you’re leaving behind, but he’s looking more comfortable with every game. Even Toni Martinez, who on paper – a Spanish loanee from the Premier League – should not, by rights, want to get involved in anything so quintessentially English – battled away.
Marvin Johnson was re-deployed to left-back presumably to manage the threat of George Baldock. In the end they spent most of their time revving their engines like two high performance sports cars, neither quite having the guts to truly challenge the other just in case they were caught out.
With Martinez proving a handful dragging defenders to the floor and leaning into them, Kane Hemmings was the perfect replacement for half-an-hour of renewed harrying. When fired up he has the ability to cause weary centre-backs all sorts of problems and he came on and made a proper nuisance of himself. 
Ultimately someone needed to break out of the compact mass of bodies. Johnson occasionally patrolled his flank like Frank Poncherello in CHiPs, Chris Maguire beavered away as he does, but it was Hall who finally found the angle that allowed him to cross for Hemmings to glance home. A fittingly ironic way to settle the game.

Milton Keynes wrap – MK Dons 0 Oxford United 0


This week I saw a photo of the 1980/81 squad. Although my first ever Oxford game was five years earlier, the 1980 squad is the first I consciously remember. In the picture were Malcolm Shotton, Gary Briggs, Kevin Brock and Andy Thomas who in six short years would be part of our greatest ever triumph.
It was a reminder that our success wasn’t just about Robert Maxwell’s money or Jim Smith’s genius. Among those unassuming legends-in-waiting were also some of my early heroes; Roy Burton, whose shorts fell down when he took a goal kick, John Doyle, who enthralled me with his ability to reach the half way line his clearances and Joe Cooke, who I remember being impressed by because he was black. I was very young at the time.
On Saturday we headed for MK Dons, a club who are younger than Facebook and who didn’t exist when we last lost to Swindon. Oxford fans, like many fans, sneered at the Stadium MK experience. But this was really just retro-fitting their experience to match their pre-conceived prejudices.
In fact, the stewards were friendly, the traffic was well managed, the stadium facilities are top class; it is a very nice place to watch football. One person said that it was a great stadium, but not for football. So what was it great for? Powerboating? It might be a templated modern stadium bowl, but people who think football should only be played in a Victorian goliath are the same people who think our modern rail system should be steam powered.
I don’t like MK Dons’ history any more than anyone else, no club should be able to buy its way into the Football League. But they are not the only football club to be born out of controversy. Take Liverpool; they were formed by the owner of Anfield after he evicted Everton from his ground and set up his own club, also called Everton (later renamed Liverpool). Nobody thinks of Liverpool as the ‘real’ Everton in the way that people think that Wimbledon are the rightful owners of MK Dons’ place in the league. The MK Dons controversy just happened in a time when people were particularly focussed on protecting the game’s perceived heritage.
Blinded by the moral issues, people conveniently ignore that when Peter Winkelman took over the club, Wimbledon were £30m in debt, falling to the bottom of the league and without a stadium of their own. Merton council were disinterested in helping save their local club as it plummeted into the abyss. Their fanbase weren’t that much more interested. Relocating to somewhere with better market conditions was a logical, if uncomfortable, option.
The Dons will always carry a stigma, there was a time when people wouldn’t even enter the ground, and even now When Saturday Comes magazine will not talk about them, but in the main they are a pantomime villain rather than a moral travesty.
But, it is difficult to imagine how they will realise whatever vision they have for their future. When they’re winning games and playing big teams, I imagine that going regularly to the stadium is an enjoyable experience for locals. But do the roots go deeply enough into the city to keep the club going when times are tough?
It seems not, you don’t get much sense that Dons fans are urging their team to glory given how few were in the stadium on Saturday. The official attendance was over 12,000, but that would mean the stadium was nearly half full, which seems very generous. You get no sense of a rich history binding the club together, a sense of purpose, a real desire to survive and thrive. Probably because there is no rich history to protect.
Karl Robinson’s approach to football is as one dimensional as his club. It reminded me of a good second division side. He maintained a rigid shape which gave little away and tried to knock the ball beyond our back-four for Agard to chase, a tactic that never really worked, but which he religiously stuck to none-the-less.
Of course, we know George Baldock, and it was telling just how shackled he is in Robinson’s system. Maybe he was simply pinned back by Marvin Johnson, but there were opportunities for him to bomb forward like he did for us last season, but instead he skulked around on the halfway line while another attack broke down.
We went through periods of not being much better, and looked dead on our feet in the closing minutes. But, by-and-large, I thought we’re looking increasingly comfortable at this level and we can start feeling optimistic about the season.

Karl Robinson laughably claimed his team were the better side, ignoring that his goalkeeper had won man of the match and only one of the four or five action replays shown on the big video screens featured a Dons attack. But then, this is the Karl Robinson who reneged on a season-long loan deal for Baldock before being apparently aghast when Rob Hall walked out on the club to sign for us. He’s a funny chap, just like his club.      

Oxford United 1 MK Dons 0

I got a bit bored of the hand wringing that was around in the run up to our win over MK Dons. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t like the decision to allow Wimbledon to relocate, nor do I understand how anyone can build a meaningful relationship a club that is such an artificial construct.

And, Peter Winkelman might look like the doorman in a cheap horror porno, but you can’t blame him for protecting his investment by relocating his business from an unviable location to one that might allow it to thrive.

The fans are just buying a product that’s been presented to them. I would find it difficult to support a club that I hadn’t invested lifetime in, but if my football mad son wanted to go and see a live game; and MK Dons was the local option, I might give it a crack.

The FA made a bloody stupid decision, which they now regret. But the practice still goes on, with the support of the footballing purists. Nobody complains when ‘phoenix’ clubs are offered positions in leagues higher than their real status deserves.

Whilst we like to believe our club has been borne from some Arthurian myth. But, most clubs have some murky past; Oxford wouldn’t have survived its recent years without the loyal support of fans whose allegiances were forged during the mid-80s, when Robert Maxwell used stolen pension money to fund our success.

If anything AFC Wimbledon have thrived as a result. In their previous incarnation, they were the ugly wart of the Premier League, but now they’re a model of how clubs should be run. Venal chancers have been run out of town and the fans are in charge.

People need get over it and move on. It has been widely acknowledged as being something that should never be repeated. Just because someone doesn’t make the right decision, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve made the wrong one.