Wimbledon come; out fighting

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The Independent Online
GLENN MOORE

Wimbledon 3 Newcastle United 3

The message to the Premiership is clear. If you want to worry Newcastle, take them on - if you dare. Wimbledon did. Beaten 6-1 at St James' Park just seven weeks ago, they pushed the Premiership leaders to the limit in a thrilling draw at Selhurst Park yesterday.

Once ahead and twice behind, they emerged with their pride restored and their team out of the relegation zone. Newcastle, meanwhile, escaped with their lead over Manchester United increased to five points and some lessons to learn.

Chief of these is the realisation that, under pressure, their defence is still prone to panic. "Some of our defending was X-rated," Kevin Keegan, the Newcastle manager, said afterwards. Philippe Albert may soon be back in the side, possibly in front of the back four.

The mere fact that Newcastle can afford to omit him underlines the gulf between these clubs which, before the game, seemed insurmountable. Newcastle, having spent pounds 14m in the summer, were top with eight wins and two draws in their last 10 matches. Wimbledon, who invested pounds 125,000 pre-season, were 18th with two draws and eight defeats in their last 10.

However, it soon became apparent that Wimbledon were showing their customary disrespect for their presumed betters. Their bold response to the recent thrashing was to play four centre-forwards supported by two attacking midfielders.

This was partially induced by the injury crisis which has ravaged their season, but it also indicated a desire to carry the game to the leaders. Newcastle were so taken by surprise they could have been three down in six minutes, Jon Goodman having a shot deflected, Robbie Earle heading over, and Efan Ekoku shooting wide.

The thought that if only Wimbledon had a finisher like Les Ferdinand they would be winning was then swiftly underlined. Peter Beardsley dispossessed Mick Harford in midfield, John Beresford over-lapped on the left and Ferdinand stole ahead from Andy Pearce to score.

Game over, it seemed, and what can you expect of a side that still has Harford lumbering around two months short of his 37th birthday?

Humble pie all round. Within 14 minutes Wimbledon were ahead. First Dean Holdsworth, set up by Goodman and the busy Oyvind Leonardsen, whipped a right-foot shot in. Then Hislop, more shaky than Shaka, misjudged a cross, Goodman pulled it back, and Ekoku deflected Harford's volley in.

In between, Paul Heald had made a stunning save from Ferdinand, but the centre-forward would not be denied. Eight minutes later, his 20th goal of the season arrived, courtesy of David Ginola's cross and Pearce's ball- watching. Five minutes later, Ferdinand turned provider, Kenny Cunningham turning in his cross under pressure from Keith Gillespie.

Undaunted, Wimbledon tore at Newcastle after the break. Holdsworth shot wide and Hislop magnificently denied Harford before, with 25 minutes left, they equalised again. Alan Kimble, not for the first time, outmanouvered Warren Barton on the left and crossed to the indefatigable Harford at the far post. His header back was forced in by Holdsworth.

Both teams could have won it. Marcus Gayle hit the post with five minutes left and a Ginola cross went begging even later. But defeat would have been harsh on either side.

The draw meant Kevin Keegan is still to win as a manager against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park. Thirteen months ago, a 3-2 defeat here toppled them off the Premiership perch, a position they never regained. This time they extended their lead - but only just.

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