Football: Commentary - United banish winter blues by punishing soul-mates

Wimbledon 2 Manchester United 5
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The Independent Online
Jaded? Got those winter blues? Finally decided your partner might be right to hint that seven-days-a-week footy might be too much of a good thing?

There were a few people beginning to feel that way at half-time at Selhurst Park on Saturday as another "much ado about nothing-nothing" headline loomed with Carl Cort putting on a "how-not-to" display of finishing.

Then football reminded us all of its capacity for the unexpected. Seven second-half goals were followed by a sit-in by those oft-patronised patrons of Wimbledon - by whom Sam Hammam, the club's saviour-cum-godfather, was called a "Judas" after he went to mingle among them.

The protest was about the long-rumoured but still unlikely prospect of a move to Dublin. Entirely understandable, even though, were it not for logistics and finance, most fans would swap south London's twilight zone for Dublin tomorrow. Selhurst may be only 10 miles from Wimbledon but, as the steady stream of late-comers indicated, sometimes Dublin seems more accessible.

Deference to the delayed may be why both sides waited to half-time to get moving but, more likely, it was down to the unusual lethargy that had marked United's play. This may not have been unconnected to the resting of David Beckham on the return to the scene of "that goal". It was a classic Alex Ferguson move, though the United manager denied any such intent, but it did not stop the Boy Wonder attempting a repeat after he finally appeared as a substitute.

Beckham's starting role, on the bench beside Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, underlined the difference in resources between these clubs. Yet in many ways they are similar. Afterwards Ferguson rightly bridled when he was fatuously asked how much of his mid-week praise for Wimbledon was "kidology". There is a mutual respect between these sides which is evident whenever they meet.

Well-managed and hard-working, both as football teams and businesses, they both have a strong sense of self-belief. In different ways the players are proud to play for their respective clubs and, with each having flourishing youth systems, the sense of identity will only grow. It is obviously easy for United to retain their best young players but Wimbledon's succesful completion of a new five-year-deal with the 21-year-old Cort is an impressive indication of their players' empathy with the club.

They did not play badly on Saturday and, as Ferguson admitted, could have been four-up at the break. But when it matter United had champion quality in the key areas, in goal and in front of it.

In the first half Cort showed an intuitive sense of positioning to earn a succession of chances but neither the composure nor the abilty to beat Peter Schmeichel, who also saved well from Michael and Ceri Hughes. Despite the Wimbledon pressure United had always seemed the more likely and, after an interval "gee-up" from Ferguson, produced a series of flowing attacking moves capped by clinical finishing. Of their five goals only Beckham's second, deflected off Vinny Jones, was fortunate.

Their best football revolved around Ryan Giggs and Andy Cole. Giggs was in the mood, largely due to Dean Blackwell's ill-judged accusation that he dived when they clashed early on. Giggs' ire was clear when he uncharacteristically "eyeballed" Blackwell and his dander was up from then on.

Cole, meanwhile, finally looks like becoming the forward United need. His all-round game has long improved - he was involved in four of the goals. Now, with his confidence boosted by a run of goals and a new contract, his finishing is approaching that of his Newcastle days. His strike, a blistering left-footed drive, must have had Ferguson wondering if he really needed Marcelo Salas.

United have now scored 23 goals in five matches, which must be a frightening thought if you are a Kosice defender - the Slovak champions visit Old Trafford on Thursday.

Their first on Saturday was a neat turn-and-shot from Nicky Butt from Giggs' pass. Then Beckham, with his first touch, tapped in from Paul Scholes' cross.

Wimbledon, as ever, refused to go quietly. Within three minutes Neil Ardley had scored through a crowd of players and Michael Hughes ran onto Chris Perry's long ball to beat Schmeichel.

But strange things happen when United visit Selhurst and the goals continued to rattle in, six in 20 minutes. Beckham, with Vinny Jones' unwitting aid, struck again. Scholes, with a quick-witted back-heel following good work by Cole, made the game safe before Cole administered the final touch.

"It's a surprising result but a pleasing one," said Ferguson. "They are never easy opponents, other teams will lose points here. They are a good side and no-one likes playing them. They have a tremendous team spirit and you can't say that about everyone."

United have, however, lost once and won seven times in 10 league visits here, a statistic which says everything about their own collective desire and team spirit.

United headed home but Wimbledon did not, around 1,000 fans staying to condemn the Dublin initiative. Hammam, admirably, emerged to talk to them but this was not entirely successful. There were clearly angry exchanges, though heavy-handed security made it difficult to get close. The hard- core stayed for an hour until, belatedly, a public meeting this Wednesday was announced.

Wimbledon's supporters showed in their protest that they are as passionate as any other club's - but there are simply not yet enough of them. While there remains an impasse over a return to Wimbledon (Merton Council and Hammam blame each other for this) the club are bound to consider other options. Dublin does seem far-fetched as well as far away, but so did a 2-5 scoreline at half-time. All together now: "It's a funny old game."

Goals: Butt (48) 0-1; Beckham (67) 0-2; Ardley (68) 1-2; M Hughes (70) 2-2; Beckham (75) 2-3; Scholes (82) 2-4; Cole (86) 2-5.

Wimbledon (4-3-1-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Blackwell, Thatcher; Ardley (Solbakken, 85), Jones (Earle, 85), C Hughes (Clarke, 85); M Hughes; Cort, Gayle. Substitutes not used: Kimble, Heald (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville (Beckham, 66), Berg, Pallister, P Neville; Butt, Johnsen, Scholes, Giggs; Sheringham, Cole. Substitutes not used: Poborsky, Solskjaer, Curtis, Van der Gouw (gk).

Referee: P Durkin (Portland, Dorset).

Bookings: Wimbledon: C Hughes, Perry.

Man of the match: Cole.

Attendance: 26,309.

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