HARRY REDKNAPP had every right to be pleased at Selhurst Park on Saturday night, plucky little West Ham had ground out a point at big- spending Wimbledon.
Yes, that does look odd, but it is accurate. The sight of John Hartson wearing a Wimbledon shirt, rather than that of his opponents, proved it. In paying West Ham pounds 7.5m for Hartson Wimbledon have finally discarded the Cinderella image.
When it is convenient, Wimbledon's manager, Joe Kinnear, and their patron, Sam Hammam, will doubtless point out the lack of a home ground, and the dependency on their impressive youth policy and admirable team spirit, but spending a dozen seasons in the top division has allowed them to build up a decent war chest. In the early days they sold to survive. Now, thanks to astute football and fiscal management they can buy to progress.
Wimbledon's team on Saturday cost pounds 13m, pounds 3m more than West Ham's, with another pounds 7m either on the bench, not selected or unavailable. This may not match Aston Villa's pounds 22m investment since the summer but it is on a par with many Premiership teams.
Only three, Newcastle, Manchester United and Liverpool, have bought players for more than the pounds 7.5m Wimbledon paid for Hartson. Arsenal's purchase of Dennis Bergkamp matches it while "big" clubs like Tottenham, Everton, Villa, Leeds and Chelsea trail in Wimbledon's wake. Leicester, Southampton and Charlton have yet to spend more than pounds 2m on a player.
A decade ago Wimbledon's highest fee was pounds 120,000 for John Fashanu. In that time they have increased their attendance from 7,824 to 17,833 - despite leaving their local area, accumulated more top flight points than all but five other clubs and never finished below 15th. Their future remains heavily dependent on staying in the Premiership (with its TV fees and big gates) but Hammam's comment, in the wake of Hartson's signing, that Wimbledon are aiming for the Champions' League should be taken seriously.
Of course, the thing about a club of Wimbledon's size spending big money is that it needs to pay off. A glance at the accompanying table shows what a risk the signing of Hartson is. Of the current Premiership club record buys five have moved on - including Paolo Di Canio, who made his debut for West Ham at Selhurst having been sold by Sheffield Wednesday for less than a third of what they paid for him. Another three are likely to depart at any moment, including Stan Collymore who appears twice, while the likes of Nick Barmby, David Hirst and even Les Ferdinand have hardly been a roaring success. To date only Bergkamp, Yorke, Alan Shearer, Frank Sinclair and Horacio Carbonari have justified their billing.
Kinnear's transfer record is promising. As well as the many lower priced gems he has discovered he has now broken Wimbledon's transfer record - which stood at pounds 775,000 for Robbie Earle when he joined - four times. Of the previous three signings Efan Ekoku has made the biggest impact while Ben Thatcher and Andy Roberts have gradually settled.
Hartson, too, will take time to find his feet. That was Redknapp's opinion and nothing the 23-year-old striker did on Saturday suggested otherwise. Roundly abused by the West Ham fans who used to adore him he looked as if he had today's hearing into his training ground assault on Eyel Berkovic on his mind. Nor did it help, noted Kinnear, that the attack was starved of service. Only Jason Euell, with two late efforts, ever looked like scoring for the Dons.
In a rare moment of excitement Hartson did get booked, for a needless trip on Frank Lampard, making it a brace of yellow cards and no goals in his two appearances so far. There is talent there, we saw that in 1997, but there are problems as well. One is his weight but that being sweated off under Daley Thompson's "tuition". The others may not be so easy to solve and one hopes, for Wimbledon's sake, that he does not become another Collymore.
The club do look after their players and keep a tighter rein on them than might be thought but, if things do go wrong, they are not in a position to wash their hands of a pounds 7m signing.
The other gamble on the pitch, Di Canio, came on to a hero's welcome from the away support, who had quickly adapted the old hit "D-I-S-C-O" to "D-I-CAN-I-O". He had little time to make an impression and his habit of slowing play down when he receives the ball may take time to integrate but his eagerness for quick return passes should suit Hammers' style. Even if he only lasts a year he could be good value at pounds 1.5m.
Another new face, West Ham's own club record buy, Marc Vivien Foe, had a quiet debut but looks as if he could become an impressive figure in the crucial defensive midfield role. A visiting journalist from France paid tribute to his ability and it should soon be evident once he adapts to the pace of the English game.
There was one other point of interest, which was fortunate since the game was so poor. Joe Cole, West Ham's 17-year-old midfield prodigy, started up front due to West Ham's lack of attacking options. He showed quick feet, confidence and courage (which he needed after taking liberties with Thatcher). There was one sublime pass from which Paul Kitson might have scored if match-fit - the admirable Chris Perry dispossessed him in the box - but otherwise his decision-making was mixed. His shooting, too, was hit-and-miss. The potential, though, was obvious. Unlike that of Wimbledon, who continue to surprise us all.
Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Thatcher, Kimble; M Hughes (Kennedy, 80), Earle, Euell, C Hughes; Ekoku (Leaburn, 68), Hartson. Substitutes not used: Heald (gk), Jupp, Cort.
West Ham United (3-5-2): Hislop; Ferdinand, Ruddock, Dicks; Breaker, Lampard, Foe, Moncur, Minto; Kitson, Cole. Substitutes not used: Hodges, Forrest (gk), Lazaridis, Potts.
Referee: P Durkin (Portland).
Booked: Wimbledon: Hartson. West Ham United: Moncur, Minto.
Man of the match: Perry.
PREMIERSHIP CLUBS' RECORD BUYS
Transfer fee Player Selling club Year
Arsenal pounds 7.5m Dennis Bergkamp Internazionale 1995
Aston Villa pounds 7m Stan Collymore Liverpool 1997
Blackburn pounds 7.25m Kevin Davies Southampton 1998
Charlton pounds 1m Neil Redfearn Barnsley 1999
Chelsea pounds 5.4m Pierluigi Casiraghi Lazio 1998
Coventry pounds 3.5m Viorel Moldovan Grasshoppers Zurich 1997
Derby pounds 2.7m Horacio Carbonari Rosario Central 1998
Everton pounds 5.75m Nick Barmby Middlesbrough 1996
Leeds pounds 4.5m Tomas Brolin Parma 1995
Leicester pounds 2m Frank Sinclair Chelsea 1998
Liverpool pounds 8.5m Stan Collymore Nottingham Forest 1995
Manchester Utd pounds 12.6m Dwight Yorke Aston Villa 1998
Middlesbrough pounds 7m Fabrizio Ravanelli Juventus 1996
Newcastle pounds 15m Alan Shearer Blackburn 1996
Nottingham Forest pounds 3.5m Pierre van Hooijdonk Celtic 1997
Sheffield Wed pounds 4.7m Paolo Di Canio Celtic 1997
Southampton pounds 2m David Hirst Sheffield Wednesday 1997
Tottenham pounds 6m Les Ferdinand Newcastle 1997
West Ham pounds 4m Marc Vivien Foe Lens 1999
Wimbledon pounds 7.5m John Hartson West Ham 1999