Football: Gullit tests faithful to limit

Newcastle United 3 Wimbledon 3 Speed 7, Domi 28, Hughes 44, Ainsworth 68, 90 Solano pen 46 Half-time: 2-1 Attendance: 35,809
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The Independent Online
THE TORMENT continues for the Toon Army and the tension continues to grip the St James' Park management. A point won, at last, hoisted Newcastle off the Premiership base, just, but two points cast away wantonly by a defence which has already conceded 10 goals was no reward for the belief of the faithful.

It is quite remarkable the manner in which they are displaying loyalty to their manager. "Ruud Gullit, Ruud Gullit" was still resounding in the Dutchman's ears after the final whistle as he apportioned blame for suggestions that a crisis is at hand firmly to the media.

"If you want to blame me, blame me," he snapped irritably. "The crowd can understand what we are doing. They saw a team trying to do everything today, but we were just unlucky. They could see that."

Only the more myopic of them. Yes, there was enough to savour in the performance of the lively Nolberto Solano, who also scored a penalty. In attack, young Paul Robinson continued to flourish and the midfielder Jamie McClen displayed a potential worth nurturing. But it was the defence, yet again, that will eventually silence the chants of "Ruud" and turn the message rude. The insecurity of United's rearguard has been an unfortunate feature of their season so far and there was a certain inevitability in the manner that the powerful, though none-too-subtle Dons secured a draw. "What can you do?" Gullit lamented. "We were solid, Goma and Marcelino played excellently. When Goma went off I thought we could deal with it, but you can't do anything about it."

Yet it should have been a breeze for Newcastle as they led 3-1 just after the interval - without the suspended Alan Shearer. But even victory might not have been sufficient to disperse the uncertainty on the Tyne. Not with Sunderland the visitors on Wednesday and the next Premiership fixture, against Manchester United, likely to place any existing Premiership pretensions in even sharper context. At least the beleaguered Dutchman will be buoyed by the reappearance of the pounds 8m striker Duncan Ferguson, who has started just seven games since he arrived in November.

The hulking Scot, who has recovered from a groin injury, received the second greatest ovation of the afternoon after Gullit's as he entered the fray in place of Temuri Ketsbaia just after the hour.

It should have been the prelude to a first victory. Instead Newcastle fell apart and the much-travelled midfield substitute Gareth Ainsworth profited with two goals, the equaliser 20 seconds before the end of normal time.

With Shearer watching from the stands, his halo having slipped on the opening day when he fell foul of referee Uriah Rennie, his absence provoked more questions than it answered. Would he play on Wednesday? Gullit was asked. "That's another game," he retorted and disappeared.

Earlier in the week, the Dutchman had denounced suggestions that the club is riven with warring factions - foreigners versus Britons and himself versus Shearer, among others - but there are certainly two egos grappling for supremacy.

For the moment, there remains an uneasy alliance, with Gullit's popularity still holding up. During a week in which the Marxist Wimbledon manager Egil Olsen was voting for the Red Alliance in the Norwegian elections, the dictator of St James' Park was still well supported on Tyneside. More than four out of five readers of the city's evening paper backed Gullit following his reported offer to resign after the lamentable second half against Southampton last Sunday. Newcastle's plight, of course, has not been entirely of Gullit's making. Far from it. The total spending since Kevin Keegan arrived in February 1992 has been pounds 125m. Admittedly, a fair chunk has been recouped, and Newcastle have flirted with League and cup success, but the now-retired chairman Sir John Hall, like Blackburn's Jack Walker, has discovered that heavy investment cannot guarantee trophies. At least Walker can always savour a title in his dotage.

That appears an eternity away at Newcastle from the evidence of this display. Yet when Gary Speed applied a neat header to Solano's free-kick before Didier Domi drove home a second from Solano's neat through-ball it all looked so propitious. But Wimbledon are not a team to capitulate that easily. While Newcastle have been intent on recapturing the championship that has eluded them since 1927, Wimbledon have packed a remarkable amount into their limited history. It was only 21 years ago this weekend that they played their first League game and they continue to confound the messengers of doom. Michael Hughes hauled his men back into contention just before the break, and although Solano netted from an absurdly awarded penalty after the ball hit Tore Pedersen's hand, Wimbledon again reduced the arrears in the 68th minute when a long ball from Hughes caused confusion in the home defence, allowing substitute Ainsworth time to beat John Karelse from close range.

Olsen sent on the towering figure of Carl Leaburn, and from then on the home side came under aerial barrage. It was almost inevitable that the Dons would equalise and, with just 20 seconds of normal time remaining, Ainsworth delivered a splendid drive that gave the goalkeeper no chance. The Toon Army turned on their players, but not Gullit.

Yet you can only wonder how much longer their faith can sustain him.

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