Football: There was not one punt upfield nor a single cry of 'in the mixer'

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The Independent Online
You might not be surprised, while watching rehearsals for Wimbledon, to get sunburnt. You might anticipate, as you watch a ball hurtling across the grass, that the neck will crisp and the legs, in their first exposure of the year, will streak like two rashers of bacon. But on Thursday what was hurtling across the grass within a short traffic jam of the All England Club was not a tennis ball. While all sporting eyes were turned to the tennis tournament, another SW19 sporting institution was preparing for action this afternoon. Yes, Wimbledon FC were back in training.

And the reason they were there, frying in weather that was more strawberries and cream than Bovril and hot dog, was the Intertoto Cup, aka the competition too far. The last thing our exhausted players need, you may think, is yet more football, especially in the summer. But then you are not the tournament sponsors. Intertoto might sound like an international clown convention (and indeed it may end up being just that), but it is, in fact, the name of a Swiss lottery company. Its idea is to promote a summer football trophy which will enable the company to offer out-of-season pools. And it has been enjoined in its endeavours by Lennart Johanssen, the president of European football's governing body, Uefa, who strong-armed British clubs into remaining in the Intertoto, with a threat that if they did not, he would withdraw invitations to next season's European competitions.

So step forward Wimbledon, Sheffield Wednesday and Spurs to protect our honour and make a stab at the Intertoto's rather worthwhile prize: the last four all qualify for the Uefa Cup ("I tell you what," said Sam Hammam, the Wimbledon chairman, there to watch training dressed in what appeared to be his Ascot kit. "It's a lot easier to qualify for Europe via the Intertoto than by coming second in the League"). Or rather step forward a motley collection of youth and on-loan players masquerading as Wimbledon, Sheffield Wednesday and Spurs.

Not relishing the idea of suggesting to Vinnie Jones that he relinquish his summer on the riverbank, Wimbledon had decided their first team would not be competing in the club's first venture in Europe since Dave Bassett took the lads to an army firing range in Germany in 1988. "We said: 'All right, we'll go in for it'," said Ernie Tippett, the Dons' youth coach and, since Joe Kinnear prefers to continue cooling his toes on the Mediterranean for the summer, the caretaker manager for the tournament. "But the other clubs had to help us out. So the FA relaxed the loan rules, and we've brought in Paul Davis from Arsenal and three youth team lads from Man U to give some experience in a team that will be mostly our youth squad."

To increase the element of unreality, building work has prevented Wimbledon from playing their first game in the tournament, against Bursaspor of Turkey, at Selhurst Park. In an effort, perhaps, to get as close to Europe as possible they will be playing at Brighton, where a large crowd is not anticipated.

"Have you seen the weather forecast for Saturday?" asked Chris Mallinson, Wimbledon's youth development officer, down at the training pitch enjoying the sight of his boys sweating. "Everyone will be heading for Brighton. Trouble is, they'll want to sit on the beach, not watch us playing football."

But despite the potential for not taking the Intertoto as seriously as they might, there was a businesslike air about Wimbledon's preparations against the Turkish side.

"We don't know anything about our opponents," said Ernie Tippett. "Nothing. But it's important our lads keep their heads, because you can guarantee, they'll be horrible, spitting, kicking, elbowing. In other words, typical Greeks."

And it is not only the opponents whose tactics might come as a surprise.

"In this heat, we can't play the usual English game," said Tippett. "We've had the kids for a week now and we've been trying to drill them into a more Continental style of play, without losing the team ethos that is Wimbledon." Which explains why, in a two-hour training session, there was not one long punt upfield nor a single cry of "in the mixer". Tippett had his boys doing things which Wimbledon's detractors believe are beyond the Crazy Gang: controlling the ball, laying it off at speed, playing short, neat, patient passes all over the grass.

In the middle of it all, striding around as though this was the kind of football he had been waiting his whole career to play, was Paul Davis, presently available on a free transfer from Highbury. But, whatever the quality, wouldn't he rather be on the beach at this time of year?

"To be honest I prefer playing in the sun to some of the other weather we have to put up with," he said. "Anyway, we hadn't got a holiday booked abroad this year. Which is just as well, I needed this time to get match fit. No, I'm looking forward to Saturday, though it might be a bit unrealistic to expect us to win."

And when was the last time he had played in Europe?

"The European Cup-Winner's Cup final in in Copenhagen in '94," he said. And then he smiled. "Bit different, innit?"