Football: Glowing Cole shows way forward

Wimbledon 0 West Ham United 0 Attendance: 23,035; Wimbledon's expensive ex-Hammer Hartson is outshone by West Ham's homegrown star of the future
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The Independent Online
THE FACT that, just for once, they were not facing Tottenham seemed to throw Wimbledon out of their normally purposeful stride. They could have beaten a patched-up West Ham side when Jason Euell missed a gift in the dying seconds but the victory would, quite rightly, have left the Hammers with a deep sense of injustice.

West Ham's illness, suspension and injury problems were compounded just before the kick-off when Steve Lomas complained of feeling unwell and was sent home.

"Paul Kitson wasn't really fit either," said the manager, Harry Redknapp, "but I had to play him because there wasn't another forward available. So I pushed Joe Cole up to play with him and he was tremendous."

Harry has never spoken a truer word. West Ham were parading their new pounds 4m signing from France, Cameroon midfielder Marc-Vivien Foe, and also introduced that renowned referee-pusher, Paolo Di Canio, as a second-half substitute. But it was the 17-year-old Cole who stayed in the memory.

Quick, clever and committed, Cole offered ample evidence that another Michael Owen is about to step forward for England until he limped off with cramp to give Di Canio and his white boots an unexpected trot for his new club.

The setting was perfect for John Hartson on his home debut for Wimbledon, and against the club which sold him for pounds 7.5m. In fact, he was snuffed out by the incomparable Rio Ferdinand and the industrious Neil Ruddock, who showed they knew well enough how to make a big man look small.

To top it off Hartson also collected a booking, his fifth of the season, and is suspended - fortunately for another two Cup games against Spurs, which he would have missed anyway.

The Wimbledon manager, Joe Kinnear, diplomatically summed up his contribution as "so-so" but added that his striker received no support. "We didn't play well," he admitted. "For the first time we looked a bit leg-weary. Maybe I should have rested one or two. They looked sharper than us but we have got a point. You can't play well every single week and we've got another match on Tuesday." That is a significant comment from the manager of a team who look as if they could battle for ever.

West Ham looked so comfortable in defence that it was difficult to conceive how they could have conceded nine goals in three defeats before this. With John Moncur at the tiller in midfield they stretched Wimbledon relentlessly and every time Cole got the ball the tempo was raised, though Foe was clearly finding the Premiership pace and swirl a bit much.

There was an early opening for West Ham after Cole had forced a corner. The flag kick fell invitingly to the left foot of Foe, but the tall man doubled up in dismay after scooping high over the bar. After 25 minutes Kitson cleverly flicked Cole into space and he sped away to deliver a shot which Neil Sullivan pushed aside at full stretch.

Early in the second half Foe finally unveiled his class with a superlative 40-yard crossfield ball to Cole, who hared off in the direction of goal. It seemed Kenny Cunningham had dispossessed him but somehow Cole retrieved the ball to get in a shot which a surprised Sullivan clutched under the bar.

Wimbledon got their act together as the second half wore on and briefly threatened. Hartson's full-blooded shot when a corner kick clearance fell to him was blocked in the goalmouth ruck, and Efan Ekoku put a glancing header just wide. It was the latter's last telling contribution. Going up for a corner with Shaka Hislop, Ekoku damaged his left shoulder.

Next it was Cole's turn to depart, with Di Canio earning a mix of cheers and boos. Then Wimbledon saw fit to take off their most reliable playmaker, Michael Hughes, showing that this was not their day.

It could have been, right at the end. Euell, who had contributed little, unleashed a tremendous drive which cannoned off Hislop's body, and in the final minute an appalling Ruddock miskick let Euell in again. He advanced on Hislop and opted to lift the ball over him but failed to get enough height on it. "Next time he gets in that position he won't try to chip it," Kinnear forecast.