Football: New Dons keep spirit intact

Wimbledon 2 Derby County 2
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The Independent Online
WIMBLEDON LAST won a home match eight months ago, coincidentally against Derby County, and sit fifth from bottom of the Premiership, but this most idiosyncratic of clubs have not survived 14 seasons in the top division by panicking.

Even now, during the strange transitionary phase under former coach of Norway Egil Olsen, three draws and an away win show that the unique spirit remains, even if the tactical communiques between leader and players seem to have lost something in the translation.

Changes are afoot, however. Olsen remarked afterwards that he is looking to buy more players and that consequently he is also looking to sell. The fact that Michael Hughes was a non-playing substitute should have alerted other Premiership managers to a potential bargain in their midst. The 28-year-old midfielder played his 50th game for Northern Ireland against Germany on Wednesday and was honoured by being appointed captain for the evening.

After playing with a hernia problem last season it is unfortunate that Hughes' recovery has coincided with a change of manager, a man whose single- minded approach clearly values the physical over the technical. Robbie Earle, too, for the first time this season, failed to win a place in Olsen's three-man midfield, suggesting that his transition into player-management may be imminent.

In the first half Wimbledon were sorely lacking Hughes' busy creativity and a few boos issued from the sparse crowd as the players left the field at half-time. Horacio Carbonari had put Derby ahead with an unmarked header from a Seth Johnson free-kick. Perhaps they were confused by their manager's new zonal defence system (which, Olsen helpfully explained afterwards, does not apply at set plays or counter attacks) but when the Italian scored he was left in a zone alone.

When asked if Wimbledon under Egil Olsen were easier opponents than under Joe Kinnear, Derby's manager Jim Smith replied: "I think they are a little bit less difficult, they are a bit more predictable this year." Predictable or not, there was little Smith's team could do about a familiar-looking Wimbledon onslaught in the second half.

It was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the men as Wimbledon scored in the 62nd and 63rd minutes. For the equaliser John Hartson beat Carbonari to a Carl Cort cross to plant a firm header past Russell Hoult. Almost before the home crowd had retaken their seats Wimbledon scored again. Hartson's flick found the influential Cort whose high cross was complemented by Euell's adept header.

For a 20-minute period either side of the two goals Wimbledon were simply thrilling. In contrast to the first half they seemed to win every tackle and complete every pass as they surged forward, but Hartson, Euell and Gayle all missed clear chances which Wimbledon's percentage football demands that they take. Among last season's meagre collection of 10 league victories only the opening day 3-1 success over Tottenham was claimed by a margin of more than one goal.

Into this void stepped Derby, who secured a point in incisive fashion. Spencer Prior's fine ball out of defence found the substitute Francesco Baiano who, after controlling the ball and waiting for Mikkel Beck to get out of his way, released a glorious flat cross which was met by Johnson's bullet header at the far post.

Goals: Carbonari (14) 0-1; Hartson (62) 1-1; Euell (63) 2-1; Johnson (81) 2-2.

Wimbledon (4-3-3) Sullivan; Thatcher, Andersen, Pedersen, Cunningham; Roberts, Euell, Badir (Earle, 76); Cort, Hartson, Gayle. Substitutes not used: Kimble, Leaburn, Hughes, Davis (gk).

Derby County (3-5-2) Hoult; Laursen, Prior, Carbonari; Eranio, Schnoor (Beck, 52), Powell, Johnson, Delap (Bohinen, 65); Burton (Baiano, 70), Fuertes. Substitutes not used: Borbokis, Poom (gk).

Referee: A Wiley (Burntwood). Bookings: Wimbledon: Thatcher, Pedersen. Derby: Fuertes.

Man of the match: Cort.

Attendance: 12,282.