Wimbledon have not enjoyed many victories over Manchester United during their decade in the top flight, just two in the previous 19 in League and cup before last night. This one was all the sweeter, perhaps, because it underlined Wimbledon's arrival as a force in the English game. No more are they mere underdogs just having a good day.
Victory in this fourth-round FA Cup replay, secured by a Marcus Gayle header after 63 minutes, produced a fitting climax to a trilogy of matches between the two clubs in the space of 11 days, earning Wimbledon a home tie with Queen's Park Rangers in the next round.
Furthermore it kept them on course for one of the season's most unlikely trebles: Wimbledon already in the semi-final of the Coca-Cola Cup and in sixth place in the Premiership. "It's a case of showing how far we've come," said their manager, Joe Kinnear, who was in deliberate low-key mode. "We used to live in fear of playing the big clubs. Now we have quality players and the club is progressing in the right manner."
Although the Premiership leaders eventually competed with spirit in this tie, there was only ever going to be one winner and it was not going to be the holders, who must have known from the early minutes they would not be gracing Wembley for a fourth consecutive time. Indeed one has to go back to 1993 to find their last FA Cup defeat away from Wembley, at Bramall Lane against Sheffield United.
An indication of just how much this tie meant to Wimbledon could be gleaned from the altercation that two of their most battle-hardened competitors, Vinnie Jones and Mick Harford, had in the closing minutes over who should have picked up Gary Pallister at a corner in the closing minutes. Kinnear assured us that it finished in handshakes - "and perhaps one or two love- bites".
Wimbledon were the more assertive from the start. They opted to play all three of their distinguished strikers, Dean Holdsworth, Gayle and Efan Ekoku, the latter moving forward at the start of the second half to produce a genuine three-pronged attack. It was not only the pace of Wimbledon's attack which troubled United but the sheer variety of it. Their willingness to run at Pallister and company from all angles had them back-pedalling frantically throughout the first half.
United got forward often enough in the opening half but their attacks lacked ingenuity and certainly the element of pacy surprise of Wimbledon's.
Ekoku might have scored after just two minutes but he mis-cued with a header from close range. Then Holdsworth and Oyvind Leonhardsen, both receiving from Ekoku, failed to deliver from goalscoring positions before the Nigerian decided to take matters into his own hands. A powerful run swept him past Gary Neville, but Peter Schmeichel was off his line like a whippet to block the shot.
A booking for Neville was not the best way for United to start the second half, but there was temporary relief for them when David Beckham, receiving from a Schmeichel throw-out, embarked on a thrilling run straight down the middle before unleashing a shot from 30 yards which, had it been a foot lower, would have qualified as another candidate for goal of the season from Beckham at this stadium.
The Wimbledon goalkeeper Neil Sullivan, however, was not going to be lobbed from 50 yards by Beckham or anyone else this night. Somewhat bizarrely, a brief period of concerted United pressure gave way to the only goal of the game. Sullivan, who had kept United waiting for their recent League victory, now denied them a certain goal as he thrust out a hand to Pallister's close-range header.
Wimbledon's winner was of similar design. Kenny Cunningham, taking a return pass from Jones after a short throw-in, crossed from out near the corner flag and Gayle powered home a header which brooked no argument.
Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Blackwell, Kimble; Ekoku, Earle, Jones, Leonhardsen (McAllister, 88); Holdsworth (Harford, 90), Gayle (Goodman, 85).
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Pallister, Johnsen, Irwin (McClair, 81); Poborsky (Solskjaer, 70), Beckham, Keane, Giggs; Cole, Cantona. Substitute not used: Casper.
Referee: G Poll (Tring).
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