The first time when people came to know about Wimbledon FC was in 1975 when they staged a brilliant F.A. Cup run beating top tier club Burnley at Turf Moor and then in the fourth round drew against Leeds United, but lost to them 1-0 in the replay.
In 1977, they were elected into the Football League, and after five seasons of consolidation, Wimbledon FC were sensationally promoted to the first tier from the fourth four more years later, under the guidance of their legendary manager Dave Bassett and owner Sam Hammam. Their arrival in the First Division was a shock to most of the football pundits and fans, but victories against teams of stature like Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa which resulted in a sixth place finish in 1987, something which is worthy of securing a place in Europe today, and their subsequent F.A. Cup victory in the following year beating the mighty Liverpool side was a tale of pure fantasy.
In the top flight Wimbledon became notorious due to their direct, physical style of play. epitomized by Vinnie Jones, and for their frequent and outrageous practical jokes that they used to play on each other and on the club’s manager Dave Bassett. Their most famous joke was that of burning the clothes of new players as an initiation ceremony. It is due to this boisterous behaviour that they earned the name ‘The Crazy Gang‘, after the popular group of British comedy entertainers of the 30s.
Gary Peters, the former captain of Wimbledon in a reunion dinner was quoted to say this about his former team,“Wimbledon recruited other club’s problems and nurtured the street-fighting nature of the perpetual underdog.”
Others however did not agree to see Wimbledon FC in the same light as Peters. According to many the mark that the Dons left on English football was nothing but a stain. Gary Linekar had once commented dismissively,“The best way to watch Wimbledon is on Ceefax.” Ron Yeats while going to Wimbledon FC once to scout for Liverpool said,“It was just welly, welly, welly. The ball must have been screaming for mercy.” Terry Venables perhaps made the most scathing comment among them all, saying,“Wimbledon are killing the dreams that made football the world’s greatest game.”
Dave Bassett however made a brilliant remark to all the criticism that they recieved. “When Wimbledon hit long balls up to a 6ft 2in centre-forward [John Fashanu] it’s destroying the game. When Arsenal hit long balls to a 6ft 4in centre-forward [Niall Quinn], it’s good football.”
Seven of the players who reached the top flight with Wimbledon had been there with the team through thick and thin in the Fourth Division. Bassett would often send his players to Lilleshall to take preliminary coaching qualifications to develop a better understanding of the game. Wimbledon set up an academy long before it was fashionable and, though not a lot is heard about it, the results were extraordinary. “In my last season we had 23 first-team players and 13 had played in the youth team,” Bassett recalled. “If that had been Manchester United people would have been ejaculating all over the stadium.”
Recent media reports and documentaries often miss out the two people who worked hard at the back for the team, Neil Lanham- the statistician who used to provide the team with data long before the practice became popular. Vince Craven, the video analyst fro whom the club had to raise £11,000 was the other one. Wimbledon were described as a glorified pub team by the critics. They however spent hours watching clips of Arrigo Sacchi’s great Milan side, a team comprising of Franco Baresi, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, who often adopted a more direct approach.
In 1987, Bobby Gould took charges as the manager over from Bassett and within a year Wimbledon had defeated Liverpool on a sunny day at Wembley. After the Premier League started, despite having to share ground with Crystal Palace and also having the smallest fan base in top flight, they still continued to thrive.
Joe Kinnear was appointed as the manager after Gould in 1992 and two years later Wimbledon finished sixth. Under Kinnear, Wimbledon FC produced and developed players of the likes of John Scales, Warren Barton, Dean Holdsworth, Keith Curle and Terry Phellan – who were sold for huge profits. However, even after all this, financing the club was a serious problem and in 1997 Hammam was forced to sell some of his stake in the club to Norwegian investors Bjørn Rune Gjelsten and Kjell Inge Røkke.
A slow decline seemed to begin thereafter. Egil Olsen, the former manager of the Norwegian national team took over as manager after Kinnear stepped down after suffering a heart attack in 1999. On 25 February 2000, the final link with the clubs glory days and Crazy Gang was severed when Gjelsten and Røkke bought out the remaining stocks of the club from Sam Hammam. Unfortunately, three months later Wimbledon were relegated out of the Premier League, thereby ending one of the most famous runs of a small team in the top flight.
Was Beasant’s penalty save of John Aldridge in the 1988 FA Cup final, which resulted in Wimbledon’s triumph, be really held up as the greatest shock of all time? Wimbledon finished seventh that season. They were sixth the year before. That team were used to beating the top clubs. The answer remains with all the fans and pundits.
They were not all about flying studs, or swinging elbows, and it wasn’t always crazy. It is just a pity, perhaps, they needed to explain themselves.
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