Football: Naked ambition pays off for Earle

Phil Shaw talks to the Wimbledon player who hopes to tear a strip off Chelsea in Sunday's FA Cup semi-final

Like the Tour de France in reverse, a yellow jersey is awarded to the Wimbledon player whose training performance is voted the worst by his colleagues. The slogan on it reads: "Today I was dog-poo, but tomorrow I'll be brilliant". Robbie Earle, it should surprise no one to learn, is one of only two members of the squad yet to wear it as the campaign enters its final month.

In the Premiership as on the practice pitch, Earle's whole season has been a tour de force. "The Duke", as he is known in the dressing-room, is again among the leading midfield marksmen, scoring in every round of the FA Cup leading to Sunday's semi-final against Chelsea at Highbury. And his box-to-box industry during Wimbledon's three-pronged bid for honours led Glenn Hoddle to put him on standby for England's game with Italy.

It was therefore a surprise when the England manager ignored Earle for the ensuing friendly against Mexico, despite a rash of withdrawals. Instead of preparing for his Wembley debut, the 32-year-old from North Staffordshire was in Aberdeen for a testimonial match between the two sets of Dons.

"I was jumping whenever my mobile rang," Earle confessed. "It'd be my Mum and I'd say: 'Get off the line in case Glenn's trying to get through!'

"But when people ask if I'm disappointed I think back to the years I spent grafting at places like Halifax, Rochdale and Scunthorpe with Port Vale. That teaches you humility. My age is probably counting against me, but I've just got to try to force his hand.''

Being in a Cup-winning side could only enhance Earle's claims. It would also complete, in a symbolic sense, a surprisingly gradual progression through the ranks that was nearly nipped in the bud. Just as Stoke City were pondering whether to promote him from associate schoolboy, the 16- year-old with a serious soft spot for Manchester City suffered a broken leg.

On his release, he was invited for a month's trial at Vale Park by John Rudge, then the assistant manager. Breaking into the side at 17, he went on to play in every position except goalkeeper and left-back, becoming synonymous with Vale's rise under Rudge.

"He has been very influential for me. Myself and Mark Bright came back in the afternoons and he'd stay behind to work with us until five or six o'clock. He always said we'd make it if we were dedicated.''

Loyalty to Rudge and a belief in honouring contracts kept him in the Potteries longer than was perhaps good for his career. When Vale accepted Wimbledon's offer of pounds 775,000 - which looks a steal six years on - he wondered whether fate was at work.

For in 1988, shortly after his starring role in Vale's epic victory over Tottenham, Earle invited his team-mates to a Cup final barbecue. He drew the winning ticket in the sweep: the Crazy Gang to win 1-0.

Now he was being wooed by their owner at his imposing house in St John's Wood. Sam Hammam told him that by the time he left, Earle would either be his club-record signing or he (Hammam) would never speak to him again.

When he agreed to sign, Hammam kissed him excitedly. Earle saw it as a sign of a shared passion to succeed. "I'd spoken to so-called bigger clubs, but Sam and Ray Harford (then manager) talked about how they saw me fitting into the team whereas the others concentrated on the financial side.''

Hammam convinced him he was joining a family. Chatting this week at the homely converted transport cafe where the players take tea and tuna rolls after training, we could have been in an old-fashioned living room. Teenaged trainees mingled with the octogenarian chairman, Stanley Reed. Even the autograph hunter who cheekily asked Mick Harford for an orange left with fruit in his hand rather than a flea in his ear.

(Incidentally, the hard-as-nails Harford is the other player still to "win" the yellow jersey. "They daren't give it to him," Earle laughed, "even in a secret ballot.'')

Yet if Earle's description of the Dons' initiation rites is anything to go by, this is also the most dysfunctional family since the Simpsons. "We were running through the woods when the lads jumped me and stripped me. They gave me a traffic cone to cover my best bits and left me.

"How you react to that determines how much more stick you'll get. If you fight back, or don't laugh it off, you're liable to find your jacket cut up or your shoes burning.''

Once, in Norway, Earle returned to the team's hotel to see his clothes, tied in a chain, dangling from an eighth-storey window. However, opponents view Wimbledon as "a glorified pub team" at their peril. "We're very professional behind the image. We've got some excellent technical players, and the boss (Joe Kinnear) is as good as anyone tactically.''

The antics seem to help the bonding process. Unusually, the players often go racing or simply hang out together after training. "It helps you get a feeling for the people you're working for and with. People talk about commitment. It's an inbred thing here.

"Vinnie (Jones) left once and the Crazy Gang spirit carried on. Fash (John Fashanu) left and it stayed strong. A great thing this year has been the way seven lads from the youth set-up have established themselves. Everything that happens with the first team goes on at junior level, too. They call themselves the Brat Pack, and it just keeps evolving.''

Earle received a maximum 10 for craziness from Jones in a tabloid article which infuriated Kinnear. But he has also created a one-man Sensible Faction within the Crazy Gang, proving himself an articulate broadcaster as well as taking a computer course in case he opts for the media rather than management in the long term.

Chelsea's foreign legion bar his way in the immediate term, although Wimbledon and Earle tend to thrive against them. "I scored against them on my debut. There are certain teams you feel you're going to score against. Bristol Rovers were one when I was at Vale, Chelsea are another.

"I suppose we look across at them a little enviously. They're just up the road, they've got big support and they're fashionable. But that just means we always want to put one over them. We've also got a great record at Arsenal, so we're hoping the two things come together.

The fatigue evident during Wimbledon's recent poor run has been as much mental as physical, Earle argued. "We've never been in a position like this season - two semis and high in the League - so we've had to learn how to adjust. But I'm sure you'll see everyone totally refreshed and focused on Sunday.''

Wimbledon need to recapture the form that saw off the holders, Manchester United, despite falling behind in the closing minutes at Old Trafford. Earle headed the equaliser, giving him "the greatest feeling".

Soon after the replay, he took his "other" family for a day out in Brighton. A group of United fans spotted him and good-naturedly bemoaned his part in their downfall. Which goes to show, Mr Hoddle, that it is not too late to recognise Robbie Earle.

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