Grayson takes Leicester to Wembley

Wimbledon 1 Leicester City 1 (after extra time; 1-1 at 90 min; agg 1-1; Leicester win on away goals)
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The Independent Online
The two most committed and athletic teams in the Premiership last night played out a Coca-Cola Cup semi-final second leg which was as full of quality and drama as muscle and passion.

When the final whistle went, after two hours of absorbing football, Wimbledon and Leicester remained deadlocked. But under the away goals rule Simon Grayson's 51st-minute header for Leicester counted double the value of Marcus Gayle's 24th-minute strike for Wimbledon.

Leicester thus go through to their first Wembley final since 1969. They will play Middlesbrough or Stockport, who meet tonight, on 6 April. Leicester have never won a Wembley final: when they won the League Cup in 1964 it was before the final had been moved to Wembley. But they will not be overawed. They have been there four times in the play-offs in the 1990s and won promotion there only last May.

Wimbledon, who were playing their 14th cup tie of the season, must now look to the 15th - their FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea on 13th April.

Leicester's hero was an unlikely figure. Grayson had only scored once before this season, at York earlier in their Coca-Cola Cup run, and was playing out of position as Leicester's wing-back. His brother, Paul, has already played in a Cup final this season - for Essex in cricket's NatWest Trophy in September. Simon will hope for better luck, as Essex were well beaten by Lancashire.

Martin O'Neill, a jubilant but exhausted Leicester manager, said: "It was a long time after the goal. The game felt like 120 years in Alcatraz rather than 120 minutes. I feel I'm 93. There is great character in this team, some decent players and real camaraderie. They battled away." In reference to Leicester's controversial FA Cup exit at Chelsea, he added: "It sort of makes up for that."

By the end of the match Wimbledon's exertions in this memorable season were beginning to show. But they had started as if fresh from the beach. They put Leicester under heavy pressure with Robbie Earle, Carling's Player of the Month and a candidate for an England call-up, at the heart of the action.

He almost scored in the first minute, his firm shot from Neal Ardley's cross forcing Kasey Keller to dive low to his left. The American could only parry the ball and Efan Ekoku poked it past him, only for Steve Walsh to clear off the line. Earle, again, and Ardley shot over. But it looked as if Leicester had weathered this early storm when, after 24 minutes, two ghastly errors cost them.

A long ball from Vinnie Jones was misjudged by Julian Watts, and Gayle whipped the ball away and headed for the byline. Keller took a couple of fateful steps off his line and Gayle thrashed a wickedly swerving shot inside the near post. It was the first goal Leicester had conceded in six hours of Coca-Cola Cup football, and only the second of the competition.

It took them until the later stages of the first half to enjoy sustained pressure of their own, but they maintained that after the break and were soon rewarded. Garry Parker curled a free-kick deep into the box and for once Wimbledon left a man unmarked. Grayson headed precisely past Neil Sullivan.

Now we had a game and Selhurst Park buzzed as the two sides exchanged crunching tackles in pursuit of their Wembley dreams. Apart from a late challenge from substitute Mick Harford there was never any animosity: these teams share a mutual respect.

Keller, who now flies off to America for a World Cup match with Canada, redeemed himself for his earlier errors. He made two fine saves from Gayle and a brave one from Ekoku. Wimbledon, having brought on Harford late in normal time, then pushed Kenny Cunningham into midfield in the extra period. By the end, even their goalkeeper Sullivan was camped in the Leicester box. Those closing stages were frantic and the pressure almost brought Wimbledon reward, when first Jones and then Ekoku had headers cleared off the line by Parker.

His efforts were typical of Leicester's superb defence which ultimately forced Wimbledon to accept that their 41st match of the season would also be their most heartbreaking one.

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Blackwell, Perry, Kimble; Ardley (Harford, 75), Earle, Jones, Leonhardsen; Ekoku, Gayle. Substitutes not used: McAllister, Heald (gk).

Leicester City (3-5-2): Keller; Prior, Walsh, Watts; Lawrence (Taylor, 105), Lennon, Parker, Izzet, Grayson; Heskey, Claridge (Robins, 119). Substitute not used: Poole (gk).

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).

Schmeichel escapes, page 27

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