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Football: Early show of annual miracle

Wimbledon are looking forward to celebrating survival sooner than usual this season.
IT WAS everything Joe Kinnear could have asked for from a Wimbledon side: a committed, professional performance with some admirably deft skill under pressure. And with time running out, Michael Hughes gained possession on the left and cut the ball back for Carl Cort to lash into the top corner; the Blues had beaten the Bibs 8-7.

The scoreline from Friday's session at a sodden training-ground on the A3 is unlikely to be repeated against Liverpool this afternoon, though with Wimbledon you never quite know what to expect. There was the late Billy Bremner, not a man to provoke without absolute necessity, who found himself kicked up the air by a Southern League nobody within 15 seconds of kick-off in the drawn FA Cup tie at Elland Road that started the Wimbledon legend; and the blue-shirted players spitting on the "This is Anfield" sign before winning at Liverpool in their first season in the top division. Don Howe thought he'd seen a few things in his time, before refereeing the training game in which a dozen players were suddenly rolling around fighting in the mud ("we just carried on playing round them"); and not even Howe had turned up for an FA Cup semi-final in a mini-bus driven by the manager, Bobby Gould.

These days, post-Vinnie and Fash, the surprises tend to be confined to the pitch, where they have been upsetting the odds, the apple-cart and the purists in equal measure since arriving in the Football League 21 years ago with a 3-3 draw against Halifax Town.

Now they are sitting prettily in the top half of the table, after seeing off Arsenal and Chelsea in successive games in a season in which many felt that lack of spending power would finally catch up with them. "We still can't compete transfer-wise with anyone in the Premiership, and I mean anyone," Kinnear said. "You play a team and by the time you play the return fixture, they've got out the cheque-book and got five new faces in. But we're doing nicely with what we're doing."

What they're doing is continuing to develop players in a strong youth set-up - five of the team that beat Coventry last week came through the ranks, an exceptionally high proportion in today's Premier League - and scouring the lower divisions, the breeding ground for Robbie Earle (Port Vale), Kenny Cunningham and Ben Thatcher (both Millwall) and Marcus Gayle (Brentford). When a bargain like Michael Hughes at pounds 250,000 comes up, Wimbledon jump in, but in general they prefer hungry, underpaid, young fighters to those who've been cosseted in luxury by bigger clubs.

Foreign mercenaries, it goes without saying, tend not to figure. Yesterday, while Gerard Houllier was wondering which country to spend his millions in, Kinnear went to Leyton Orient to watch Peterborough United's crop of teenagers, hoping to swap his winger Andy Clarke for one of them.

In writing off the team on the evidence of a long barren spell towards the end of last season, it was easy to underestimate the effect of injuries, especially to Kinnear's attacking players, none of whom finished with more than four League goals beside their name. Marcus Gayle, Efan Ekoku and the potentially outstanding young Jason Euell all matched that early on this time. "For a long time, I didn't have a striker," Kinnear said. "Getting them all back in the summer was like having four or five new players. The pre-season went very well, we couldn't have got off to a better start than beating Tottenham 3-1 and we've gone on from there. Now we could be turning the new year in third spot." Then, as if to avoid any delusions of grandeur, he quickly adds: "Any danger of going down could be wiped away."

The first priority every August is to eliminate that threat, which the club's owner Sam Hammam believes could endanger Wimbledon's very existence. Yet it is a measure of their increasing confidence that the talk is less about keeping necks above Southampton and Nottingham Forest than rubbing shoulders with the big boys in London and beyond.

"The expectation level has gone up," Kinnear said. "We missed out on two semi-finals two years ago, when we ran out of puff. I have been a point short of Europe twice. So we have been knocking on the door for the past four seasons. The players have got more mature - I have always tried to breed character into the players and belief in themselves.

"We're a small family football club, not a showbiz club. It's a hard- working, down-to-earth club that needs a lot of love and affection and that's what we try and give each other. There's not many teams that could have performed like we have without a ground and without the finances. It's a great credit to everyone here. Long may it continue."

Amen to that.