Tottenham on the rise as Hartson exits again

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WIMBLEDON HAVE made a habit of punching above their weight since reaching the top flight in 1986 but, according to the referee, Graham Poll, overdid it yesterday as John Hartson was sent off for use of the elbow.

WIMBLEDON HAVE made a habit of punching above their weight since reaching the top flight in 1986 but, according to the referee, Graham Poll, overdid it yesterday as John Hartson was sent off for use of the elbow.

Hartson, booked after 38 minutes for a late tackle on Mauricio Taricco, headed Wimbledon into the lead after 56 minutes from Jason Euell's corner. But, after Stephen Carr, with his first goal in 110 League matches, equalised, Hartson was cautioned again for apparently elbowing Luke Young with 11 minutes left.

The Welshman has now been dismissed five times in the Premiership and yesterday proclaimed his innocence but he could have done with taking the fifth amendment as his comments appeared only to incriminate himself. "I haven't gone up to elbow the boy. If anybody can see that from a video I hold my hand up but I honestly didn't," he said. "I'm devastated. I've led with my arm but not gone in with an elbow, you've got to do that to protect yourself. It was more of a slap [than an elbow]."

He will now be suspended, further disrupting a gradual return to form badly needed by his club. This was his third goal in eight appearances this season, a marked improvement on his return of two in 14 matches in the half-season following his January transfer.

Wimbledon are using him as a back-to-goal target-man, supported by Carl Cort and Marcus Gayle on the flanks and Walid Badir and Jason Euell breaking from midfield. It is probably the best way to use Hartson as it ensures he is of consistent use to the team, even when going through one of his regular and prolonged barren periods.

His dismissal was a rare moment of drama in a turgid match which both managers felt their sides could have won. "I'm disappointed but we could have lost at the end, so I'm satisfied," said Egil Olsen, the Wimbledon manager. "We were below par but shaded it on chances," said George Graham, his Tottenham counterpart.

It was the sixth occasion in 1999 that Wimbledon have failed to beat Spurs, underlining the impression that the north London club are finally rising above their less-exalted neighbours. Spurs ought to be more successful. They have everything Wimbledon lack: an illustrious history, a grand stadium, the "glory game" tradition and a large support. Yet, until last season's slump in form, Wimbledon had consistently finished higher than Tottenham in the 13 years since they gate-crashed the big-time in 1986.

Last season, however, Tottenham finished five places above Wimbledon and knocked them out of both cup competitions. To judge from the opening weeks of this season, the change in performance could be permanent. Tottenham arrived hoping for a win to lift them into the top six, Wimbledon seeking points to get out of the relegation zone.

The difference is that Tottenham, under Graham, are finally showing the organisation and team-spirit embodied by Wimbledon. However, the flip- side is a lack of creativity which is especially evident when, as yesterday, David Ginola and Darren Anderton are absent. As a result Spurs fielded the uninspiring midfield quartet of Oyvind Leonhardsen, Tim Sherwood, Steffen Freund and Allan Nielsen, each, to varying degrees, box-to-box midfielders with a good engines, firm tackles and a limited range of passes.

With Wimbledon also solid rather than spectacular, the match rarely rose above the mundane. The one occasion it did so in the first half came after 20 minutes when Gayle, 25 yards out, whipped a left-foot free-kick towards the top right corner of Ian Walker's goal. With the aid of the crossbar, the goalkeeper just clawed it out.

Spurs, who had seen Steffen Iversen head over in the second minute, produced their best response from Carr, a 20-yard shot well parried by Neil Sullivan. Chris Perry, having gone close from a corner at one end, then lost Hartson from a Euell corner at the other. Wimbledon looked good for the lead until lazy defending by Cort and Euell allowed Carr and Nielsen to exchange a long-distance one-two which ended with Carr driving in a fierce shot.

Goals: Hartson (58) 1-0; Carr (76) 1-1.

Wimbledon (4-3-3): Sullivan; Cunningham, Andersen (Kimble, 84), Blackwell, Thatcher; Badir, Roberts, Euell; Cort, Hartson, Gayle. Substitutes not used: Earle, Leaburn, Jupp, David (gk).

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Walker; Carr, Perry, Young, Taricco; Leonhardsen, Sherwood, Freund, Nielsen; Armstrong (Dominguez, 79), Iversen. Substitutes not used: Edinburgh, King, Fox, Baardsen (gk).

Referee: G Poll (Tring).

Bookings: Wimbledon: Hartson, Roberts. Tottenham: Taricco, Sherwood. Sent off: Hartson.

Man of the match: Carr.

Attendance: 17,368.