Football: Kinnear on mission to turn fantasy into fact: Wimbledon's underdog image is undermined by Cup successes. Ken Jones met their manager

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The Independent Online
ONE OF life's little complexities is the problem of underdogs who find themselves in danger of becoming upperdogs. It can be a very unsettling thing. Take Wimbledon football club.

Living off their wits, rented accommodation, not a sponsor in sight, unloved Wimbledon may be, but cast an eye down the order of seven Premiership clubs left in the FA Cup and only two, Manchester United and Aston Villa, stand above them. What if they defeat United at Selhurst Park tomorrow and Villa fail to get past Bolton? 'By Monday we could be favourites and what will they make of us then,' chuckled Wimbledon's ebullient manager, Joe Kinnear.

Recently, Kinnear was invited to select a team for the Fantasy League, a phenomenon that suggests we can soon expect a visit from outer space to discover whether there is any intelligent life here. 'You what]' he exclaimed. 'The Fantasy League] I'm in it my son. It's right here.'

What else can Kinnear think? Here he is with a squad cobbled from cast-offs, astute scouting and blarney at transfer tribunals, trying to subsist on attendances that would normally speak of impending bankruptcy, and it's all he can do not to rake in another few million. 'Hardly a week passes when we don't get an offer that runs into seven figures,' he said, 'so we must be doing something right.'

This includes producing two of the Premiership's most expensive defenders, Terry Phelan and Keith Curle, both pounds 2.5m and both sold to Manchester City at a huge profit. Among the current attractions is Dean Holdsworth, 19 goals in 36 appearances last season after arriving from Brentford and still going strong. 'We paid pounds 750,000, which was a lot of money for us and not our way of doing things, but I managed to persuade Sam (the owner Hammam) that it was a sound investment,' Kinnear said. Later he learned that Terry Venables had been close to signing Holdsworth for Tottenham. 'Terry wasn't sure about the lad and I got in first.'

Well, he and Hammam got in first. Theirs is a pretty solid partnership. Hammam's enthusiastic patronage, Kinnear's football expertise. 'Because there isn't much revenue we need to find two million a year just to stay open,' Kinnear added. 'Sam has to fork out his own money. It's his dosh and he's guided by me.'

At the start of this season Kinnear went to Hammam with an exciting proposition. As usual, the overdraft was a problem but perhaps they could get out of trouble by winning a cup. 'I said to Sam that we might be close to nicking something but only if we didn't have to sell players. He agreed to carry the burden if I could convince him that we had a realistic chance. We'd beaten everybody on our day, so I said, yes, if the draw is kind to us, we can win a cup.'

When the Coca-Cola Cup came around Kinnear could have bitten his tongue off. Wimbledon away to Newcastle. 'After winning that one we're looking for an easier game. Who do we get? Liverpool at Anfield] By then Sam was beginning to look at me a bit funny, but we forced a replay and went through after a penalty shoot-out.'

The run ended with a 2-1 defeat by Sheffield Wednesday, who were drawn against Manchester United in the semi-finals. 'Amazingly, we could have played United in both cups,' Kinnear reflected.

It was late in the afternoon of a grey day and Kinnear was sitting in the lounge of a hotel on the outskirts of north London, where he was raised after being born in Dublin. While with Tottenham Hotspur and Brighton he made 26 appearances at full-back for the Republic of Ireland and the idea of succeeding Jack Charlton as manager appeals greatly. Cheekily, he has asserted in Irish newspapers that the time cannot be far off when Charlton will have to think about retiring to the river bank. 'I get them at it,' he chuckled.

Humour is strong in Kinnear and he has plenty of confidence, too. Straight after joining Tottenham from St Albans in the mid-1960s, barely 17, he was made captain of the youth team. He gained an FA Cup winners' medal in 1967, more than just holding his own in a line-up of renowned internationalists led out by the great Dave Mackay.

How, it can be asked, does Kinnear reconcile the values implanted by Mackay, who remains a close friend, with Wimbledon's reputation for abrasive, graceless football? Fact. Wimbledon put more passes together than their critics imagine. Fact. They are not short of brain-power. A year ago, when becoming the last team to inflict a home League defeat on Manchester United their tactics surprised Alex Ferguson. 'We caught them on the hop,' Kinnear said. 'We out-thought them and had more skill than they'd given us credit for.'

However, if Ferguson felt a shudder of apprehension when the fifth- round draw was made it surely sprang from thoughts of Wimbledon's controversial belligerence and aerial effectiveness. And, of course, Kinnear doesn't underplay it. 'There's only one player left from the 'Crazy Gang' and a lot of the criticism is unfair, but as long as I've got anything to do with it we are going to be difficult to play against. Our players are expected to work hard and they do. A number have learned the game with us, not just recruits from the youth policy, but lads who looked like disappearing from the game.

'Take Warren Barton, an England B full-back. Arsenal had him as a boy, not good enough. Watford took him, not good enough. He went from there to Redbridge and on to Maidstone. When Maidstone went out of the League we bought him. Now we're looking at in excess of three million. The same kid.'

Also, Wimbledon are looking at an occasion Kinnear expects his players to thrive on. 'Manchester United get such support that there is bound to be the sort of atmosphere we're usually missing at home. That's in our favour, it really is, the feeling that you are involved in a big game, crowds of supporters in the streets, everything.'

And if it turns out right for Kinnear? 'Have a few quid on us for the Cup,' he laughed, an echo of Mackay in his boldness.

(Photograph omitted)