Gayle forces the point

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The Independent Online

Southampton's annual campaign to keep the SS Premiership docked in their Channel port is becoming threateningly held up in choppy waters. Since gathering their third League win of the season in August, the Saints have gone seven games without success and victory's teasing proximity yesterday can hardly help the nausea on board their rocking ship.

Southampton's annual campaign to keep the SS Premiership docked in their Channel port is becoming threateningly held up in choppy waters. Since gathering their third League win of the season in August, the Saints have gone seven games without success and victory's teasing proximity yesterday can hardly help the nausea on board their rocking ship.

At a venue where last May an armada of supporters saw them secure their top-flight status, Dave Jones' side led for all but the dying seconds. Only as the game entered its 90th minute did Marcus Gayle steal Wimbledon's equaliser.

That they failed to hang on, especially after surviving a first half of Wimbledon pressure and thumping stair-rod rain, caused Jones to "feel we've lost the game rather than come away with a point. The killer instinct is something you have to learn and we haven't learned it yet."

Jones has issues more important than football weighing on him right now. He is in court this week and is only surviving on the support offered to him by his family and fans both of Southampton and their opponents. "Football," he says, "is keeping me sane."

Yesterday, though - in a sporting context - he was spitting mad. His side were forced on to the back foot almost from the first whistle and, without the acrobatics of the goalkeeper Paul Jones, they may well have been sunk by half-time.

Twice, the Welsh international produced plunging, strong-wristed saves to deny Robbie Earle. But his most eye-catching stop - in response to John Hartson's firm header - required an elastic flinging of his frame high and hurriedly towards the top left-hand corner. It was a world-class effort.

In addition to those close shaves, Wimbledon also came desperately near to scoring when Gayle, at the end of a run from halfway, hit a crisp shot against the foot of a post.

Furthermore, Jason Euell had a goal ruled out for off-side, as - in a rare foray forward - did Hassan Kachloul for the visitors. All of which first-half incident contrasted sharply with the early post-interval moments. Here were 20 minutes which won't have been taken into account by those reportedly preparing a £1bn bid for Premiership TV rights.

Eventually, however, out of that shapelessness and out of the blue, Southampton led. Jason Dodd hit a pass from deep; Trond Soltvedt held it up; Stuart Ripley, whose incisions down the right had represented Southampton's most promising attacking dimension, slid an immaculate pass behind the flailing Ben Thatcher; Marian Pahars could barely help scoring. The Latvian has scored in five successive away League games.

Increased intensity was instantly engendered among the Wimbledon troops. Euell had another goal flagged out; the Israeli midfielder Walid Badir glanced a header gruesomely close; limbs and bodies flew hither and thither in the Southampton box.

Finally, though, the Dons' rightful reward duly arrived. Hartson thundered one last leg-weary time into the box and lashed a shot on to the underside of the crossbar. For a split second, as it bounced out, there seemed absolute confirmation this would not be Wimbledon's afternoon. But Gayle was ideally stationed to steer home the rebound.

The thunder and rain that followed a vociferous away following out on to the South Circular Road can only have underpinned a feeling of gloom. Southampton continue to swirl, with Wimbledon unappealingly close to the murkiest waters of the Premiership. A point per game often seems statistically safe at this stage. But, by Easter, such a strike-rate is insufficient.

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