Irreverent, spirited, tactically sound, in Kinnear's mind Wimbledon are a match for anyone but he accepts there is room for improvement - notably in attack

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How about this for pressure? Two games a week, meagre attendances, borrowed ground, shoestring budget, a banana- skin FA Cup tie at Crewe on Tuesday. The manager's hair is prematurely grey above creased features and on Saturday he struck a doleful pose. "We chucked away two points," Joe Kinnear grumbled, "the chance to make up ground".

With 15 minutes left Kinnear, raising his arms to the crowd, tried to whip up more enthusiasm for the efforts of a team only five points adrift of the Premiership leaders, Liverpool, with three matches in hand, and soon to play for a place in the Coca-Cola Cup final.

The Wimbledon story goes on and on. Reference to Alex Ferguson's assertion that they are serious contenders for the championship at last altered Kinnear's serious demeanour. "That's Alex up to his Scottish tricks," he chuckled. "Trying to get us at it."

Some say that Wimbledon's presence in the leading bunch proves that the quality of the Premier League is exaggerated. Put that to Kinnear and you are likely to get a mouthful. Irreverent, spirited, tactically sound, in his mind they are a match for anyone.

Nobody, of course, enjoys playing against them. "Wimbledon have their own method, and it works for them," you hear rival managers saying. If more refined than under previous influence they still exert enough aerial pressure to have opposing defenders calling for the aspirin bottle.

Derby's manager, Jim Smith, knew it and planned accordingly, doubtless impressing on his men that they were unlikely to find the experience enjoyable.

They didn't. Russell Hoult found himself dealing with more crosses than he normally sees in a month and even Paul McGrath, who remains a monument to composure, was occasionally rattled.

Wimbledon's failure to take advantage of first-half pressure explained Kinnear's disconsolate countenance. That and the uncharacteristic slackness in defence that enabled Ron Willems to equalise Marcus Gayle's 60th- minute goal shortly after replacing Ashley Ward. "I don't expect us to concede goals like that," Kinnear added, angry that it was made when Dean Sturridge outjumped taller men.

What Kinnear must now contend with is the extent of his achievement this season. No job in the Premier League appears more stress-free but there is the pressure of personal expectations. "We go from game to game," he said. "No priorities. I like to think we are the team everybody wants to beat. Shortly after the season began people were tipping us for relegation. Now look at us. It's more than I imagined but there is such a tremendous spirit here that I'm not greatly surprised. The players are getting the credit they deserve but none of them are allowed to forget their responsibilities and I'm always looking for improvement."

After Saturday it may involve better finishing. Despite Hoult's agility and handling and resolute work elsewhere in Derby's defence, Wimbledon should have been comfortably ahead at half- time. "The pitch was heavy and we left a bit of ourselves at Bolton in midweek [the Coca Cola quarter- final victory]," Kinnear added.

Nevertheless, Ekoku should have done better with a second- half header soft enough to make Hoult's job easy before providing Gayle's opportunity in a crowded goalmouth.

When Derby began to throw players forward Kinnear felt that it would work against them. "When teams do that against us we usually get something from it," he said. Not this time.

A safe bet, in fact a certainty, is that Kevin Keegan would never have entertained managing Wimbledon. Kinnear's name has not figured in speculation over Keegan's successor at Newcastle. But today, if somebody were to ask what a successful manager looked like, whose image would come to mind?

Goals: Gayle (60) 1-0; Willems (84) 1-1.

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Blackwell, Kimble; Jones, Ardley, Earle, Leonhardsen (McAllister, 83); Ekoku (Clarke, 87), Gayle. Substitutes not used: Goodman, Harford, Murphy (gk).

Derby County (4-4-2): Hoult; Yates (D Powell, 34), McGrath, Rowett, C Powell; Laurson, Carsley, Flynn ( Dailly, 75), Asanovic; Ward (Willems, 80), Sturridge. Substitutes not used: Van der Laan, Taylor (gk).

Referee: R Dilkes (Mossley).

Man of the match: McGrath.

Attendance: 11,467.

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