Football: Sharpe relief for Leeds

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The Independent Online
Leeds United 1 Wimbledon 0

A stormy Monday looked likely to deepen the early-season blues at Elland Road until Lee Sharpe, their pounds 4.5m record signing, scored his first goal since joining Leeds from Manchester United earlier in the summer.

Sharpe's strike, 13 minutes into the second half, quelled mounting disquiet among a gathering of less than 26,000. As a result of their first victory in 10 Premiership matches since 3 April, Leeds edged into mid-table. Wimbledon, still without a goal or a point, remain rooted to the bottom.

Sources close to Leeds indicate that Sharpe will not be their most expensive recruit for much longer. Neil Ruddock, listed at pounds 5m by Liverpool, is understood to be Howard Wilkinson's latest target.

The Leeds manager showed his dissatisfaction with his defence by dropping Gary Kelly for the first time last night, but a rare clean sheet could not disguse their vulnerability.

Quite apart from his defensive capabilities, the pounds 5m-rated Ruddock would give Leeds some much-needed bravado. With the exception of the makeshift strike force of Ian Rush and Mark Hateley, who qualify for a bus pass between them, their line-up was largely youthful and clearly lacking in confidence.

The most intimidating venue in Europe, to use Alex Ferguson's description, was more sullen than seething before Sharpe's intervention. At the least sign of a mis-hit pass, a hurried cross or hopeful punt towards Hateley's head - all depressingly plentiful - anxiety turned to anger in the stands.

A misunderstanding between Nigel Martyn and Carlton Palmer shortly after the half-hour was symptomatic of the malaise. As the goalkeeper arrived for a routine catch, his colleague hoofed the ball out of play. Following the throw-in, Efan Ekoku's centre was headed perilously close to his own goal by Ian Harte.

At that stage, Martyn's only save had been from Marcus Gayle's first- minute header. Neil Sullivan, embarrassed from 60 and 45 yards respectively in the previous two games, was untroubled until Hateley forced a corner 30 seconds before the interval.

Booed off the pitch, Leeds almost returned with a goal, only for Sharpe to blaze badly wide after Rush had cleverly laid off Harte's cross. However, in keeping with his status as the veteran of the home midfield - at 25 - Sharpe appeared less prone to panic. Just before the hour, when Andy Couzens combined with the tireless Rush to give him a shooting chance, the former England winger felt sufficiently assured to switch the ball to his weaker, right foot and beat a defender before despatching it beyond Sullivan from 20 yards.

How the Wimbledon keeper must yearn for someone to poke one past him from point-blank range. His forwards had several opportunities to do precisely that, Robbie Earle's header forcing the substitute Kelly into a dramatic goal-line clearance, although Lee Bowyer and Harte also had late chances to give Leeds a scoreline that would have flattered them.

Leeds United (3-5-2): Martyn; Wetherall, Palmer, Jobson; Couzens (Kelly, 62), Bowyer, Tinkler (Radebe, 88), Sharpe, Harte; Hateley, Rush. Substitutes not used: Wallace, Kewell, Beeney (gk).

Wimbledon (4-3-3): Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, McAllister, Thatcher; Ardley, Jones (Blackwell, 76), Earle; Ekoku, Clarke (Goodman, 76), Gayle. Substitutes not used: Kimble, Jupp, Heald (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).