Fan’s View – 2019/20 – no.42 – Wimbledon at home

Article by Paul Beasley Wednesday, February 19th, 2020  

OXFORD UNITED 5 AFC WIMBLEDON 0

“This is a must win game” is a tiresome football cliché. Some fans often spout this nonsense when with a little thought would clearly see the next match is no such thing. Last game of the season with your team occupying the final relegation place one point behind your opponents. Now that’s 100% a must win game.

However, I demand the right to be contradictory here. All Oxford fans and that includes those who were already aboard the positivity bus (3rd last stop top six, second last stop Wembley, final stop Championship) had the visit of Wimbledon marked as a must win if we are to have a realistic hope of getting to even that third last stop.

My son had made another categorical statement. “We will beat Wimbledon.” I didn’t say anything but just looked at him wondering how he could be so convinced. He then added “because they are poor”.  Poor is a description I heard used to describe the Wombles throughout the game and at half time. One comment went that bit further declaring that they were the worst side to have played us here this season. On the evidence of the ninety plus minutes that is almost certainly true but just leaving it at that would not be doing justice to the excellence of our performance.

Wimbledon may be fourth from bottom but on Saturday they had drawn at top of the table Rotherham. Four days before that they had drawn with Ipswich without conceding. A month earlier they’d beaten Peterborough – the darlings of many – and had not lost a league game by more than a single goal since mid-November. Also please do not forget that a team is only as good as their opponents allow them to be. We were the opponents that helped make them look as bad as they undoubtedly were on the night.

A sodden pitch is now becoming the norm

It was another filthy night weather wise with it being as if there’s someone sat on high with a switch they decide to pull to open the heavens periodically every time a football match is taking place. That or climate change.

We just laughed those conditions in the face and set about playing our possession football with good technique from the first blast of referee Sam Purkiss’s whistle.

The half hour mark arrived with the game still goal-less. Football fans, me included, really do say some things that make them look stupid. To the “we’re playing well” comments I retorted “Yes, but we don’t score goals”. There was no way we could be disappointed with how we were playing but I suspect Wimbledon would have been pretty happy too at that stage. We’d not scored and although we were not playing in such dangerous areas as against Sunderland there was still a mistake, or possibly two, in us. Their tactic may have been just to wait and pounce when they came. Indeed after one cock up Simon Eastwood had to rush out and save the day.

Wimbledon provided stark contrast to the Black Cats. I found it hard to believe that each side had the same number of players on the field. In this one we were able to find space aplenty all over the park. Sunderland on the other hand had, for much of the game, stifled us.

In those initial thirty minutes we had come close and were playing positive forward passes, running at defenders and getting to the bye-line. Joe Day, the Wimbledon custodian, was very much earning his money. Nathan Holland with his spindly legs (I know, I’m one to talk) got onto a Josh Ruffels pass and using just his right foot got a cross over which Matty Taylor, using his strength, got on the end of forcing Day to tip over. Taylor again came close when for once we’d fashioned a chance from a throw in. This time it was James Henry’s cross which fell to him.  After the ball came back off his chest a little awkwardly he was still able to get a shot away. Day got down incredibly quickly to keep this one out.

There was a further chance Taylor didn’t convert when he appeared to delay shooting. I’d argue there was no clear cut chance and he was sensibly trying to make one. As a proper finisher he knows what’s best. This though did prompt Tim in front of us to be a little critical. A short while later he’d joined me on the naughty step for fans who have talked crap.

By the time 34 minutes were on the clock we were two up, the first scored by Taylor. Cameron Brannagan found Anthony Forde, our newly converted right-back and when his attempted cross looped up into the air Mark Sykes was first onto it. He took a touch then stepped into the ball to move it onto Henry who pinged it into the six yard box for Taylor at his predatory best to finish. Up went Wimbledon arms claiming for off-side. Freeze framing the incident tells of perfection of Taylor’s movement and the ball in. Shane McLoughlin had got the wrong side of our number nine and then put his effort into manhandling rather than attempting to legally win the ball.

The second goal had something about it that said, hey we’re getting back on form. Cameron played a ball forward which Henry, with a really fancy flick, sent on its way.  When he did that there were three blue shirts nearer the ball than Sykes but our winger/midfielder was the one with the momentum and he took it on at pace going inside two Wimbledon men before speeding past one of them. At the edge of the box Holland took over as if part of a relay team, one in which Sykes was not aware that he was supposed to hand over possession. The loanee from WHU rolled the ball into a prime shooting position and hammered it beyond Day.

It was not so much that we were 2-0 up at the break that told me we would win this but more an incident with two or three minutes to go before we could get up and stretch our legs. The Wombles had the ball near the dugouts. In a trice we had swarmed all over them, with yellow out numbering blue and they had nowhere to go.

Congratulations for our no.17 after he’s just scored the third. Photo Simon Jaggs

If there was still any doubt that the game was over as a contest, that had gone five minutes after the action had resumed. Wimbledon have a long ball reputation. I don’t know if it is correct to label the current iteration as such a team because there were times when they attempted to pass the ball about a bit. They just were not adept at doing so and we had them penned into areas where they were far from comfortable and quite vulnerable. Max Sanders was hassled by Henry and Browne as he tried to make inroads into our territory. The latter drove forward using pace and power in a no messing run leaving the Wombles rear guard on the retreat. With his instep he stabbed a pass through to Henry who, with more immaculate timing, was facing Day. I thought he wasn’t quite going to get there and his little hurdle was to avoid injury to himself and the keeper. That wasn’t it. A sand wedge of a finish is what it was.

Another five minutes passed and another goal had been added to the tally. Elliott Moore won a header on the half-way line from a Day clearance. The ball bounced once, Holland was quicker than Terell Thomas and after chesting it down pushed it along the ground past Day and into the net.

It was now time to think this could be a cricket score and when Browne cracked one against the bar from distance it really was a case of how many?

As it turned out the answer was just one more, which did not arrive until stoppage time. Perhaps we lost our rhythm a bit when we made three changes in fairly quick succession. We certainly took off three players that had been bang at it in Browne, Sykes and Holland. Obviously Portman Road was in mind but George Thorne and Dan Agyei brought something to the party too. Also fair play to Jamie Mackie for not receiving a yellow. As Holland was about to be replaced brother said “we’re about to bring on the second booking of the game”.  Nesta Guinness-Walker (now there’s a name for you) who’d received a card four minutes earlier remained the only one to do so. This was a bit of a baffler given the number of fouls/attempted fouls committed by Wimbledon. I’ve not got a solution but I’d be pleased if the authorities came up with a way of stopping rotational fouling.

That final goal was Taylor’s second. It coming from a Henry/Forde combination was apposite because this had been a car crash of a showing from Wimbledon. They were given freedom to play passes to each other and under no pressure Henry bent a cross goalwards. We had five men in the box making forward movement. The visitors’ defence which was all over the place just stood.  When Taylor stretched and stabbed home there was not a blue shirt within eight yards of him. When the ball was first played he was yards onside. Still up went the arms of the woeful Wombles. Don’t look to your left at the linesman look the other way at where your right back is. And even if he’d not been asleep and had moved level with the next last man Taylor would still have been onside. It is all about timing. Once again immaculate as was this performance.

The understanding, which occasionally seemed telepathic, shape and team play had returned with some moves being of the exhibition variety.

That there were so many candidates for man of the match says it all.

Eastwood wasn’t called upon as often as he is in some games but made one excellent save at 4-0 stretching down low to his left when the quickest of reactions were required. To be honest I can’t fault anything he did and when he clipped a ball over an opponent to get it to Josh Ruffels I thought, what’s all this criticism of his distribution?

The back line looked solid once more and were rarely even slightly troubled although I do recall a couple of balls early on that sailed past the goal but may have done some real damage if Wimbledon had an eagle eyed top flight striker in their ranks.

The Moore/Dickie combo had a look to it that belied the fact they’ve not played together much. Just as well as the unlucky Mous is out for one to two months. I wonder who is pencilled in as the next centre-half in the pecking order. Moore won loads in the air and on the floor his footballing doesn’t look amiss, which is creditable for such a tall man. It is no surprise that Premier League clubs are interested in Dickie the way he played here. His confidence in bringing the ball out from the back grows by the game.

Now we’ve got Forde at right-back the attacking threat we lost when Chris Cadden departed has to some extent returned and he is the one trusted to take a lot of the dead balls.

Cameron Brannagan was probably my man of the match. He’s just so involved in everything and was back to his best. It’s taken a couple of games. Or should it have been Dickie?

Henry, Sykes and Holland all deserve praise too but of the others buzzing around in midfield and up front Browne was probably the one pushing for accolade of best player. He can play centre-forward, out wide or seemingly as a genuine midfielder. He dropped deeper on occasions than he has done to receive the ball but that is testimony to our fluidity. Even striker Taylor did the same with it all fitting together like clockwork.

When they appeared, Thorne had undoubted class in moving the ball about, if a little less in moving himself about and Agyei is deceptively quick and very strong.

Yes this game was proof that the season is still alive but it was nevertheless just one game. A glance at the league table shows what work has to be done. We’re 10th and even if we win games in hand we only jump one place. More concerning is that three teams above us have played one game fewer than us. As long as we don’t balls it up completely at any stage every game between now and the end of the season is absolutely vital. Of the nine teams above us two still have to come to the Kasstad and we visit another three starting at Ipswich this coming Saturday.

We’ve been reminded that we can play. Alex Gorrin is now available again. Ben Woodburn isn’t far away and we’ve already got subs who have shown they can contribute.

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