Honest Joe, defender of the Dons: Joe Kinnear is the man who dared to draw Gary Lineker into controversy. Jasper Rees talked to him

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LAST Saturday said it all: Wimbledon had just consigned the League champions to their eighth successive away defeat and afterwards Howard Wilkinson was brooding to the press.

Joe Kinnear, the Wimbledon manager, waited politely outside while the beleaguered visitor put on a brave face. Most of the assembly had not heard enough when the Leeds manager had said his piece and they followed him out of the room. Ten or 15 journalists bustled straight past Kinnear as if he was not there. With a brief oath, he turned on his heels and scarpered, leaving unentertained the depleted few who regard his mouthy post- match briefings as the best incentive for going to see Wimbledon.

Seven years on from the club's arrival at the game's top table, and still no one wants to sit next to them. That includes Gary Lineker, who said on Match of the Day that he would rather watch Wimbledon on Ceefax than in the flesh. Lineker puts noses out of joint slightly less often than Mother Teresa, but after winning 1-0 at Arsenal on Wednesday, Kinnear said the unsayable - that Lineker is not whiter than white. 'It hurts me when we've done so well to be rubbished,' Kinnear said. 'I just think sometimes it's so unkind.'

In the last two months Wimbledon have completed the double over Liverpool and Arsenal, beaten Coventry and Leeds, as well as Aston Villa and Everton in the FA Cup. In October they won at Old Trafford and Alex Ferguson said they were 'the best side that's played us at home this year'. 'It's very rare that we get that sort of praise,' Kinnear said.

Today Wimbledon take on Tottenham Hotspur, the club with the longest Cup tradition of them all, for a place in the quarter-finals. Kinnear knows who the nation will be supporting and even he might feel ambivalent about knocking out his old club. 'I had 12 great years there. I played in five finals and won them all. It's the only result, after our own, that I more or less look out for every week. I think it will be very emotional.'

Kinnear is an emotional kind of manager, which is exactly what Wimbledon needed after the morale-sapping reign of the sergeant-majoresque Peter Withe. You could not fail to be a wag with a mother from Dublin and a father from Belfast, and in an era of tight-lipped managers Kinnear's blokeish, plain-speaking wit is giving the club better publicity than it has had in a long time.

Sometimes his honesty gets him into trouble. 'It's just what I'm like. I work very hard and I have a blast now and then. I haven't learnt really to keep everything tucked up. I'm a straightshooter. Sometimes I think, 'My God what did I say that for?' But normally it's the way I feel.'

And he feels very strongly about the traditional, hypocritical - as he sees it - sport of Dons-baiting. 'Arsenal do it against Crystal Palace: Seaman kicks it 60 yards, Smith flicks it on and Wright scores; it's a wonderful goal. When we roll the ball out to Hans Segers, and kick it like every goalkeeper in the League does, 60 yards up to Fashanu and flick it on we get ridiculed for it.'

All the same, you wonder if he ever feels like telling his side to go out and stroke the ball around like Spurs did under Bill Nicholson. 'I remember in my Tottenham days getting the balls from the halfway line and chipping them on to Alan Gilzean's head and he'd flick it or lay it off. But we used to say different things in them days: 'You pass it with your head.' We use John Fashanu to his strengths. There aren't many better headers of the ball.'

Fashanu and Vinnie Jones both played in the club's one appearance in an FA Cup final - the 1-0 defeat of Liverpool in 1988 - while five of the team who beat Arsenal are still under 23. 'We've upset all you lot again,' Kinnear said after Wimbledon had kept their eighth clean sheet in 12 games. 'What you gonna say about us this time?'

The best you can say about the club's best performances is how valiantly they play at the back. Wimbledon have become the leading purveyors of defenders to the nation. In the continuing absence of a sizeable following, it looks likely that John Scales and the injured Warren Barton will lengthen the list of players sold to keep the ship afloat.

'I'm not resigned to selling them because if we went all the way in the Cup the finances we would gain from that would mean we wouldn't have to,' Kinnear said. 'That would keep the club going for another season . . . and Sam (Hammam, the club's managing director) is very adamant that maybe this time next year we'll be sitting in our own 20,000 all-seater stadium. Once we get the crowds coming in we can keep our best players. Once that comes we can start buying.'

Buying a place to call their own might just stop the sneering, because part of Wimbledon's PR problem was that they entertained the aristocracy in a slum called Plough Lane.

Sitting on the Leeds bench last week at Selhurst Park, the club's rented accommodation, was Mervyn Day, a goalkeeper who won a Cup winner's medal with West Ham in the same year as Dickie Guy saved Peter Lorimer's penalty at Elland Road. That just illustrates how far Wimbledon have travelled. Back in 1975 they were Southern Leaguers. Now they have been in the top flight longer than 11 of its 22 clubs.

'The British public are supposed to like underdogs,' Kinnear said, 'but we're the only underdog everyone hates. I can't understand it.' If they win the Cup again then they will achieve two things: prove that the last one was not a fluke and maybe win some friends.