Holdsworth playing a winning game

Glenn Moore meets Wimbledon's top striker who believes that there is no substitute for hard work

Dean Holdsworth has a confession to make and he would be grateful, if you are a Wimbledon team-mate, if you read no further - or at least skip the next three paragraphs.

For Holdsworth escaped the traditional "Crazy Gang" initiation when he joined Wimbledon. Nobody cut up his ties, threw his shoes out of a bedroom window or set fire to his kit-bag. For some reason he avoided the customary greeting.

Not that he is complaining. The admission slipped out when he was describing what had happened to Duncan Jupp, one of this season's signings.

"Juppy got the normal one, the clothes out the window with his boots after them. We were four floors up in a hotel. Me? I, er, got away with it. I've never said it before but nothing really happened to me. I must have joined at the right time, someone else must have been getting a bit of stick. I don't think it will happen now."

Maybe not, but as Gary Lineker recently found out, the Crazy Gang is still alive and mischief-making, even if only Vinny Jones remains of the original members. It is that famed team spirit which means that Wimbledon, after losing their first three matches, are up there again, fifth in the table with five straight wins. Victory today over Sheffield Wednesday (one point from 12) and, depending on other results, they could even be second.

"It was easy to write us off after the first three games - Manchester United, Newcastle and Leeds away, three very tough games," Holdsworth said. "It was not hard to see people jumping on the wagon and saying: 'This is the year'.

"A lot of teams have bought big and we haven't, so it's inevitable that people think we'll struggle. Wimbledon have never bought big - they sell big - but because of the financial situation now the club have said they do not have to sell, which is good for the club and the fans.

"The club is growing quicker than Manchester United. Our average gate last year was 14,000, admittedly with a lot of away support. On the pitch the team are getting more recognition. Brian McAllister was called up by Scotland, we have players representing Ireland, Norway, Nigeria, England Under-21s - we are an international side.

"We are not going to worry about the other teams and where we are in the league. We would like to say we will be there at the end of the season, but one thing you are at Wimbledon is realistic. If we can keep this run going it is great for confidence and sets a standard to maintain for the season. Not many teams are going to be above us at the end of the season."

Indeed, since Wimbledon entered the top flight 10 years ago they have regularly been in the top 10. Were it not for last year's worst placing of 14th they would have had a better average finish than Everton and Spurs in that time. As it is, their average is ninth. They are also one of only eight teams to have survived the last decade in the top division.

"All the hard work is being appreciated by other people now," Holdsworth said. "When I joined the club everything seemed to get highlighted apart from the football. I found myself in my first season with 19 goals and not many people knew about many of them. There was always something else happening off the pitch or off the ball. You'd wake up on Sunday and read the paper and it would be 'and by the way, Dean Holdsworth, Robbie Earle or whoever scored the goal'. People are beginning to say 'they're not bad, that Wimbledon'. But, either way, it is the results that matter. Winning games is the best thing for us.

"Bigger clubs pay bigger wages and get the big imported stars. I don't think Wimbledon can ever put themselves in that bracket. But you have to be a certain player to play for Wimbledon. You have got to be so hungry it's unbelievable.

"The jellyfish thing is part of that. When you are in a fight the gloves come off at Wimbledon. I can't work out why Gary Lineker said it. If you pick on Wimbledon you pick on the team, not one person."

Holdsworth himself, incidentally, is not anti-Lineker. Later in our conversation he held him up as an example, one of the goalscorers he had admired in his youth along with Tony Cottee and "Pop" Robson (Holdsworth is a West Ham fan).

He still lives in Essex, with his wife Samantha and sons Bradley and Jordan, which means a mind-numbing crawl through the London traffic to get to Wimbledon's Roehampton training ground each day. This follows several years of braving the North Circular to get to Brentford. It makes you wonder why he has not moved closer, but then, he is supposed to have been moving clubs any day now for about two years. The latest bust-up saw he and Joe Kinnear exchanging words in the tabloids, followed by Holdsworth going on the transfer list reportedly saying he would never play for Wimbledon again. He has since returned to the fold, and the side, although he remains, technically, on the list.

"I'm still on it but there is no rift between me and the manager or the club," he said. "It got highlighted, but it was just a minor thing. When you are working with everyone it is not always a bed of roses.

"I've been linked with more clubs than Nick Faldo. It's been going on for years. It can be frustrating. These stories keep occurring and you don't know where they have come from. I just let it go above my head now. Until I'm told otherwise I'm playing at Wimbledon and I'm under contract.

"It is a backhanded compliment. If I wasn't doing well I wouldn't be linked so it's a nice feeling in a way, but then you let it go and forget about it. Things change overnight in football, for the sake of a phone call. Until that happens you get on with your job."

One suspects that, at 27, the England B international knows that a big- money move will have to happen soon if it is ever going to happen. While Wimbledon have become adept at surviving in the Premiership it is increasingly hard to see them challenging for honours; even the cups go the way of the elite few these days. Given the current success of Efan Ekoku, and the promise of Jason Euell, it may also be in Wimbledon's interests to sell him.

Meanwhile, Holdsworth is carving out a second career in the media. For example, he appears regularly on Sky TV and models for Top Man. When we met he was working for Philips, promoting their mobile phones at the "Live96" technology exhibition.

"I've been signing a few autographs, raising some money for charity," he said. "I like to keep busy. A lot of players go home, put their feet up, do various things, good or bad. Some people say 'oh, he's being distracted', but I never allow it to impinge on my football. This sort of thing might further my career after football. You've got to look to do that."

In the meantime he may have to look out for his clothes at the training ground. Mind, after the stick he has received for appearing in a newspaper parade of top hunks, followed by a topless session with Company magazine, he might be reprieved.

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