Manchester United. . . . . . . .0
SAY what you like about Wimbledon, but their rude unpredictability can usually be counted on to make things more interesting. Less than three weeks after seriously hindering Blackburn Rovers' challenge for the Championship, yesterday they did the decent thing and pinned back Manchester United, too. A crowd of 28,553, almost 12,000 more than the Dons' previous highest home gate this season, saw John Fashanu's scrambled 21st minute goal prevent United from re-opening a clear lead at the top of the Premiership.
With an hour and a half to go to the kick-off at Selhurst Park, United's fans were thronging the Prince George pub at the corner of Whitehorse Road. The transistors were on, and the roar that greeted the announcement of Southampton's second goal could probably have been heard in Kenny Dalglish's dugout down at the Dell. Three hours later, it was the faintest of echoes as goal difference continued to separate the top two.
Wimbledon had not lost a home league match since Arsenal beat them 3-0 on New Year's Day, their subsequent victims in SE25 including Sheffield Wednesday, Newcastle, Leeds and, of course, Blackburn, thrashed 4-1 just when their challenge to United was maturing. Alex Ferguson's team beat Wimbledon 3-1 at Old Trafford back in November, and then beat them 3-0 at Selhurst Park in the FA Cup in February, but form meant nothing yesterday. The announcement of the Blackburn result may have taken some of the pressure off United, and it was no great surprise when Wimbledon took the lead midway through the first half.
Marcus Gayle had already muffed one clear opportunity, failing to make convincing contact with a bouncing ball on the six-yard line, when Fashanu struck. Peter Schmeichel could not muster sufficient authority to claim Gary Elkins's raking low cross at the near post, and the man in the blood-red boots was there to bundle the ball home with his usual lack of ceremony.
United managed few significant attacking moments in the first half. Mark Hughes's searching pass almost intersected with Ryan Giggs's dash down the middle, and his backheel to Brian McClair on the edge of the area briefly evoked the spirit of the absent Eric Cantona. Then Andrei Kanchelskis, remembering his lines from Wednesday night's semi-final replay, ripped open the left flank of Wimbledon's defence before blazing his shot high over the bar. But in general, United were, as Alex Ferguson admitted afterwards, 'a bit casual'.
A thoughtful-looking Ferguson resumed his seat for the second half with a television crew in close attendance, and his half-time words must have been to the point. 'We really went for it in the second half,' he was to say, 'but it wasn't our day in the penalty box.' His declaration that it had been 'a nothing match' might have reflected a purist's view, but it did scant justice to the entertainment value of the game.
As United at last gathered pace, a revived Giggs several times looked likely to make his swift incursions tell. His final pass never found its mark, but his efforts were notably more pertinent than those of Kanchelskis or Paul Ince. Hughes battled with muscular industry against John Scales, but could establish no degree of real ascendancy over the Wimbledon man. Lee Sharpe came on for a tiring Bryan Robson, but then had to move from midfield to left-back when Paul Parker went off with an injury and Denis Irwin switched to the right flank.
United may have come closest to a goal when Ince was denied a penalty in the 55th minute after he had been bundled over by Warren Barton while racing on to Hughes's flick. Referee Terry Holbrook, 30 yards behind play, saw the offence as having taken place a couple of feet outside the area. Within five minutes Ince was claiming another penalty when Peter Fear clattered into him, but this time Mr Holbrook was beyond criticism in judging the offence to have been committed a foot outside the area.
A torrid final 15 minutes saw the first of substitute Dion Dublin's close-range snap-shots nestle in Hans Segers's arms, and the second fly over the bar. A combination of Dublin and Ince had the ball in the net after they went up with Segers, but the United pair were adjudged guilty of impeding the keeper. Then, most bizarrely, Schmeichel - with Ferguson's permission - arrived in the Wimbledon area for a last- minute corner which he met with a firm header just wide of the post, only to receive a volley of harsh words from Steve Bruce, his captain, who - with seven goals to his name this season - had been lurking just behind him, poised to strike. No last-minute equaliser for United this weekend, then, but for neutrals the Premiership contest grows more compelling by the day.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content