Willems does a Wimbledon

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The Independent Online
Wimbledon 1

Gayle 60

Derby County 1

Willems 84

Attendance: 11,467

Eking out results with scrambled late goals is very much Wimbledon's forte, but yesterday they fell victim to just such a turn of events themselves when, on the brink of a victory that would have taken them back up to third in the Premiership, they let in an equaliser with five minutes left.

As it is, with all their immediate rivals either drawing or losing, Wimbledon's title aspirations have not been significantly damaged. They are still fifth, five points behind the leaders Liverpool with three games in hand - two over the other teams above them - and have now lost only once in 23 games. But even those who have begun to warm to them would have to accept that for the most part their football lacked something of its normal vigour, and having laboured to take a 60th-minute lead they ended up paying the price for failing to put the match beyond the reach of moderate opposition.

For Derby, who have not won since the end of November, the result was a let-off. Anonymous in attack other than on the few occasions when Dean Sturridge ran at the Wimbledon defence, they held together at the back with no great certainty and in Russell Hoult had a goalkeeper who looked very shaky under pressure. But when Wimbledon suffered a loss of concentration in the part of the pitch where they had been most solid, Derby capitalised.

For all the new-found tactical maturity that has been claimed of Wimbledon this season, the old ways of the long ball are far from forgotten, and the big boot figured prominently. "I kept looking round expecting to see Dave Bassett in the dug-out," said Jim Smith, the Derby manager. There were mitigating circumstances, however: the heaviness of the pitch, and the vulnerability in the air of Hoult, who endured a torrid first half in which his worst frights came when he blocked a close-range shot from Robbie Earle and then, off-balance, grabbed one from further out by Oyvind Leonhardsen.

In the 60th minute, however, Derby found they were contending with one corner too many. Efan Ekoku's header hit the underside of the bar via Darryl Powell and all but crossed the line before Marcus Gayle followed up to make sure. Within two minutes Ekoku was through on Hoult only for Paul McGrath to stretch out a battered 37-year-old leg and knock the ball clear.

That hardly seemed to matter to the outcome until Gary Rowett aimed a routine ball high into the Wimbledon area and Brian McAllister, newly arrived as a substitute, allowed the much smaller Sturridge to reach it with his head first. The ball travelled across the face of goal and then back to another substitute, Derby's Dutchman Ron Willems, who volleyed it in.