Football: Gullit pleads for better dose of luck

Newcastle United 3 Wimbledon 3
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THEY NEED to rediscover past glory at St James' Park. The players, the manager and, most urgently of all, the supporters crave it. And someone had located it. Not on the pitch, but in Newcastle United's cd collection and Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" boomed out of the speakers.

It proved a perceptively prescient choice. Tyneside need rocks at the back and they get players ready to roll over whenever a high ball heads towards them. The prosecution tearing at Ruud Gullit's managership had owned the floor for a week and the team could have provided the defence. Which is Newcastle's problem, they do not have one.

You do not get that much for pounds 16m in football these days, although you would expect to purchase defenders who approach heading the ball with more authority than bashful teenagers asking their first girl for a dance. No such luck, I am afraid. This black and white combination get queasy with air sickness at anything over three feet.

Which introduces the question: just how many goals do Newcastle's forwards have to get to ensure their defence will not squander the advantage? So far no-one has discovered the answer. One goal against Tottenham, two against Southampton, now three against Wimbledon and still they await their first win.

The common denominator with the above matches is that Newcastle scored first and the Toon Army were putting in estimates of how far they had to be ahead to be totally confident of victory on Saturday night. A four- goal advantage in injury time was about the riskiest equation they would part with and even then a few doubts were expressed.

On this occasion Newcastle were 2-0 and 3-1 up and were still desperately and unconvincingly hanging on to the precious point that elevated them off the bottom of the Premiership at the end as the crosses landed in their area like cannon balls. On this evidence, Niall Quinn, who surely will play for Sunderland in the North-east derby at St James' Park on Wednesday, will cause mayhem.

Gullit must know that but he could hardly further damage morale by saying so and plucked another scapegoat from the air. After the referee, the players and himself, his latest target was fate and he bemoaned the circumstances that had cost him Alain Goma at the back and Temuri Ketsbaia at the front.

"The defence was good until we got injuries," he said. "We are extremely unlucky. We were solid, Goma was excellent, but what can you do? You hope you can deal with these setbacks but we couldn't. It was the difference between a good result and a bad result."

The statistics bore Gullit out because Newcastle were 3-1 ahead when Goma retired with an ankle injury, although the shakiness that bedevilled the team was apparent even when he was there. But for 69 minutes it looked as though they might get away with it.

Gary Speed, with a thumping header, and Didier Domi, after a delightful one-two with the inventive Nolberto Solano, made it 2-0 and although Michael Hughes pulled a goal back for Wimbledon just before the break, luck seemed to be smiling on Newcastle when the linesman ruled that Tore Pedersen had put hand to ball in the area 20 seconds after the restart.

Cue an aerial bombardment that is hardly an alien tactic for Wimbledon and the visitors were rewarded in the 70th minute when David Beharall failed to control Hughes' optimistic punt and Gareth Ainsworth volleyed past John Karelse.

Could Newcastle hang on? The crowd, splendidly supportive, chanted Gullit's name over and over again, the fourth official had held up the board revealing there were four minutes to go and still the flimsy barricades were just holding together when Marcelino did not reach for the centre-back's life line and hoof the ball into the crowd. Ben Thatcher gained possession, passed to Ainsworth on the left and he darted inwards before lashing into the corner.

The atmosphere was pricked and a deflated crowd headed for another night of contemplation. Gullit seemed encouraged, however, drawing encouragement from the support. "The crowd here can see what we're trying to do," he said. "They see a team trying to play the right way."

Whether they will see things quite so benignly after the next two matches is debatable. Gullit's immediate future will be decided by Sunderland at home on Wednesday and Manchester United away next Monday.

Goals: Speed (7) 1-0; Domi (28) 2-0; M Hughes (44) 2-1; Solano (pen 46) 3-1; Ainsworth (69) 3-2; Ainsworth (90) 3-3.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Karelse; Barton, Marcelino, Goma (Beharall, 58), Domi; Dyer, McClen, Speed, Solano; Ketsbaia (Ferguson, 61), Robinson. Substitutes not used: Kerr, A Hughes, Harper (gk).

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Thatcher, Pedersen, Cunningham, Kimble; Earle (Euell, 58), Andersen (Ainsworth, 58), Roberts, M Hughes (Leaburn, 75); Cort, Gayle. Substitutes not used: Ardley, Davis (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).

Booking: Wimbledon: Ainsworth.

Man of the match: Solano.

Attendance: 35,809.