Football: How good are Wimbledon?

Simon O'Hagan finds a south London championship is now a serious possibility
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The Independent Online
They have gone 19 matches unbeaten. They are three points behind the leaders, Liverpool, with a game in hand. The season is nearly halfway over, the race for the Premiership has rarely looked so open, and they go to Aston Villa today in fear of nobody. If there are still people in the game who have trouble taking Wimbledon seriously, then they have not been paying attention properly.

Whether Wimbledon can actually go on to win the Premiership is another matter, but at least one eminent neutral observer believes it is within their capabilities - Craig Brown, the Scotland manager. "Nobody thought they could win the FA Cup," he said last week. "And now nobody seems to think they can win the League. But they could just sneak quietly in. They've got steely nerves and they're very consistent. Teams like Manchester United and Newcastle United can be brilliant, but they can also have mediocre games. Wimbledon grind out very efficient performances every week."

Brown's interest in the club centres on their Scots-qualified goalkeeper, Neil Sullivan. He saw Wimbledon beat Southampton 3-1 earlier in the season and was widely reported as having attended last Saturday's 1-0 defeat of Blackburn Rovers. In fact, Brown was elsewhere, but that still left three international managers up in the stands - Glenn Hoddle of England, Egil Olsen of Norway, and Bo Johansson, the Swede who is in charge of Denmark.

Their presence, it should be said, was not all it was cracked up to be. This was the only Premiership match in London, after all, and Johansson and four of his coaches had arranged their visit to coincide with a home match for West Ham (against Aston Villa) so they could watch the Danish international Marc Rieper.

When it was postponed, they headed south. But while it would be quite wrong to suggest that the country that gave us Jesper Olsen, Preben Elkjaer and the Laudrup brothers might be about to embrace the Wimbledon method, Johansson was still intrigued by it and left Selhurst Park with a favourable impression.

"You have to respect them," he said. "They do the same things very simply all the time. They don't take any risks. I never saw a back four pass to each other less than Wimbledon's. And even when the full-backs get the ball wide they don't really go forward. That's what makes them so hard to attack. When the game changed and Blackburn came at them the defence responded very quickly."

Wimbledon are supposed to have moderated their long-ball tendencies, but that is not how it looked to Johansson. "They were more or less hitting a high ball all the time. They go up knowing they can win the second ball even if they can't win the first."

Olsen, who was at Wimbledon to watch three of his players, the home team's Oyvind Leonhardsen and Blackburn's Lars Bohinen and Henning Berg, was struck by this aspect of Wimbledon's tactics. "They didn't create too many chances," he said. "But the benefit of attacking like this is it helps to stop the opponent creating chances too.

"The way they go forward is the reason why Wimbledon are strong defensively. The other team rarely win the ball in midfield because Wimbledon don't play through the midfield. That's when you might be unbalanced in defence and vulnerable.

"But if the opposition is having to build from the back all the time it makes it much more difficult for them." Higher balls, Olsen said, also gave the attacking midfield players that vital extra moment to position themselves for the resulting knock-downs.

While, according to Olsen, Wimbledon and the Norwegian national team adopt almost identical tactics going forward, the similarities end as far as defending is concerned. "I would prefer to see them with a more structured defence," he said. "I think they follow opponents too much and therefore they are often confused. With Norway we play a zonal system. When Blackburn had the ball I wasn't too impressed."

That is part of the reason why Olsen thinks Wimbledon cannot win the Premiership, plus the fact that they simply don't have players with good enough individual qualities. "I like Efan Ekoku and the centre-backs [Dean Blackwell and Chris Perry]. I'm impressed that the team are so high in the table. Their spirit is very strong. But no, I don't think they can win the League."

Premiership managers have to be as wary of dismissing Wimbledon as they do of helping to stoke up their new-found reputation. But while David Pleat, whose Sheffield Wednesday team lost to them 4-2 in October, respects their organisation and in particular the co-ordinated play of Ekoku and Marcus Gayle up front, the League title is beyond them, he believes, "for 101 reasons". Pleat thinks they will lose to Villa today.

Brown supports the case for Wimbledon by citing the example of Ipswich Town, who did not let being poor relations stop them challenging for old First Division titles regularly in the late Seventies and early Eighties.

"Wimbledon have got tremendous togetherness and determination, and they play with a shape that doesn't distort," Brown said. "They are genuine contenders. I believe in self- fulfilling prophecy. Once you start to win you acquire a mind-set. Wimbledon have got that. They're not just hoping to win. They're expecting to win."