Football: Earle's act of penitence a blessing

Manchester United 1 Wimbledon 1
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The Independent Online
At the end it was difficult to know whether the end of Eric Cantona's reign was nearer or farther away. The man who has never lost an FA Cup tie had maintained his record, it was just that the preservation order looked a little tatty.

Wimbledon will have home advantage for the replay tomorrow week, although anyone who has been to Selhurst Park when these teams meet will know that the red hordes usually swamp the place. Manchester United, too, will surely have a stronger team out. The outcome, as both managers conceded, was as cloudy as Mystic Meg's crystal ball.

"We're not taking anything for granted," Joe Kinnear said while Alex Ferguson, his United counterpart, was equally wary. "We could have done without the extra game," he said, "but we're just glad to be in the fifth round draw. I'm happy to get a second chance. It was a great tie, the sort you relish."

Indeed it was. The first Cup shock of the weekend arrived at 2.30pm when the home side was announced. Chris Casper had been well signposted but to find Michael Clegg and Brian McClair in the starting 11 and Roy Keane at sweeper suggested that Ferguson thought it was a Coca-Cola Cup match rather than the competition his club has dominated for three years.

The effect, though, was to provide the stimulus for a tie that was littered with chances and throbbed with excitement. Wimbledon fancied their chances, United had to attack to spare their fledgling defence and the teams set about each other like cats in an alley. That was in the game's conservative period, before, as Ferguson put it, United "went gung-ho" for victory.

Keane, who was a colossus, pushed forward like a tank and United pounded on the thick blue line until Eric Cantona floated in a cross from the left with two minutes remaining. Robbie Earle failed to move out with his fellow defenders and Paul Scholes, slipping in behind him, beat the outstanding Neil Sullivan with a low header.

That was it, then. The holders had got through by the skin of their teeth. Or it probably would have been with any other team but Wimbledon. "Dave Bassett always drummed into us," Vinnie Jones said, "don't tell your grand- children that you've played at Old Trafford if you've gone out and just froze. You've only played here if you've really played. Wimbledon are never dead and buried. Never. Ever."

They dug themselves out of the grave with a free-kick deep into injury time that Earle, desperate to make amends for his previous error, thumped past Peter Schmeichel like a sinner making his penitence.

He was one wrong-doer saved, although you suspect United's culprits had a harder time explaining away their misdemeanours. Cantona and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were so anxious to make sure the latter did not get booked for a foul on Kenny Cunningham they forgot their other duties. "We had two players arguing with the referee instead of being in the penalty box organising," the United manager simmered. "We had handled them so well all game. It was a bad goal to lose."

Not a bad goal, though, for a neutral wishing to watch a sequel. Neither manager was asked to comment on Karel Poborsky being brought down by Sullivan for what, television pictures suggested, ought to have been a penalty. That had been long forgotten. Too much had happened in between.

Goals: Scholes (88) 1-0; Earle (90) 1-1.

Manchester United (5-4-1): Schmeichel; Clegg, Casper, Keane, G Neville, Irwin; Poborsky (Solskjaer, 77), Scholes, McClair (Cole, 77), Giggs; Cantona. Substitute not used: Wallwork.

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Blackwell, Kimble; Ardley (Jupp, 88), Jones, Earle, Leonhardsen; Ekoku (Holdsworth, 74), Gayle. Substitute not used: McAllister.

Referee: G Poll (Tring).

Bookings: United: Keane, Cantona; Wimbledon: Sullivan.

Man of the match: Keane.

Attendance: 53,342.

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