2. Aug, 2022


It's Autumn 1976, Britain is recovering from its Hottest ever Summer. The Heavens have opened and flood not droughts are the order of the day. The music scene has also had a vast change of climate.

Come the darker nights of 76 British Mothers were suffering collective nervous breakdowns. The Bay City Rollers salad days were over to be replaced by a group of snarling spitting young upstarts from North London. Even their names were enough to send shudders through Suburbia. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The Sex Pistols fronted by lead singer Johnny Rotten. Young Johnny was christened John Lydon and is an avid Arsenal fan But this respectable image was only for the family

The Pistols were more interested in cultivating a more crude and in your face image. Hence band member Steve Jones infamous expletive laden outburst during Bill Grundy's cozy tea time chat show in December 1976. The band's first single Anarchy In the UK was in the charts and the Sex Pistols were living up to that billing.

A year earlier Southern League Wimbledon had reached the FA Cup 4th Round. On the way they beat First Division Burnley at Turf Moor. The Clarets were flying and were challenging for the League title. Burnley had also reached a FA Cup Semi Final the previous season. But the Dons were undaunted and became the first none league team to beat a top flight club away from home this Century. Further heroics were to follow in Round 4. Wimbledon held mighty Leeds United to a goalless draw at Elland Road. In my previous blog I highlighted the magnificent Leeds team of the Seventies. Goalkeeper Dickie Guy became a national celebrity when he saved a Peter Lorimer penalty. At the time Lorimer was rumored to have the hardest shot in football.

Wimbledon eventually lost the replay 1-0, their Plough Lane ground had a limited capacity so the tie was switched to nearby Shelhurst Park. The Dons bank balance was given a considerable boost as a 40,000 plus crowd saw an own goal settle the game. The cup run was no fluke, Wimbledon were now widely regarded as one of the top none league sides in the country. They won the Southern League three years in succession (1975-77). This sustained period of excellence was duly rewarded. In 1977 Wimbledon were elected to the Football League. The Dons replaced Cumbria club Workington Town.

Suddenly this affluent corner of South London was playing host to Fourth Division football. Most people still associated the area with its World famous Lawn Tennis Championship and The Wombles Children's TV Series. The Wombles were furry lovable creatures whose main purpose was to rid Wimbledon Common of litter..

Initially the football Wombles were regarded as warmly as the Dear Old Uncle Bulgaria, voiced by National Treasure the late Bernard Cribbins.  But as Wimbledon embarked on a jet propelled rise through the Divisions their public persona resembled more Johnny Rotten then Cribbins or Osmond. In 1982 Dave Bassett became Wimbledon manager. Fondly nicknamed 'Harry' Bassett was unable to prevent relegation in his first season at The Plough Lane helm. The relegation proved a temporary blip as the Dons stormed to the Fourth Division title in 1983. Twelve months later the Londoners were promoted to The Second Division for the first time in their history. 

Striker Alan Cork scored 29 goals in that historic season. Bassett signed Cork from Derby County while goalkeeper Dave Beasent arrived from None League Edgeware Town. Extra firepower was added when Reading midfielder Lawrie Sanchez was signed in 1984. After a season of Second Division consolidation the Dons were upwardly mobile again. A Sanchez goal at Huddersfield in May 1986 sealed promotion to the First Division. The meteoric rise from Fourth to First Division had taken a mere 9 years.

John Fashanu scored 4 goals following his April arrival from Millwall .Fash became an instant hero at Plough Lane, although his popularity was not universal in the Wimbledon dressing room. He and Sanchez developed a mutual loathing that continues to this day. To be
fair dislike between team mates is not uncommon

But I doubt the whole team coaches from Anfield and Old Trafford have witnessed a full scale fight on route to an away match. But Wimbledon's poor coach driver was subject to such an event as he drove the Dons to a fixture at Exeter. Even more bizarrely the massive ruck involved Chairman Sam Hammam. The Lebanese businessman bought the club in 1977. The players were demanding a pay rise before Hammam and his fellow directors piled in. As the rumpus erupted an increasingly bewildered Bassett offered the following advice "If you want more dough, why not torch your cars and claim on the insurance." Somehow I doubt Bob Paisley or Ron Atkinson were imparting similar pre match advice. Makes the Pistols tour bus look tame.

In the midst of such mayhem it was hardly surprising that the bookies made Wimbledon favourites for relegation, How could a club with an average gate of 6,000 survive in the big league? Typically Bassett's all sorts thrived in adversity. They finished 6th and even topped the table in early September As the Sex Pistols rocked the establishment a decade earlier this team of rough necks from South London were a upsetting the traditional upper echelons of English Football. The Dons had the Pistols contempt in buckets loads. Having descended from their team bus a collection of scruffy footballers were saunter into the away dressing room.. Within minutes one of those poorly dressed players would press play on a giant sound system and rather loud music would be unleashed on anyone in the vicinity. 

Most home teams grudgingly accommodated, however Brian Clough and Nottingham Forest were far less obliging. Twice the Forest manager instructed assistant manager Alan Hill to politely ask if the music could be turned down. When the decibels were ramped up, Cloughie burst into the visitors dressing room and smashed up the offending ghetto blaster. The intervention did the trick, Forest won the game 4-1.

Unlike Brian Clough and Nottingham Forest, many teams were intimidated by Wimbledon. On the pitch they took no prisoners and were no strangers to referees note books. The signing of Vinnie Jones added extra bite. The midfielder signed from Wealdstone in the Autumn of 1986. In his second appearance he scored the Dons winner against Manchester United. But Vinnie was more of a enforcer as Paul Gascoigne soon found out. Newcastle United's young superstar was signaled out for special treatment when the Magpies visited Plough Lane in February 1988. Newspaper photos showed Jones manhandling Gazza's genitals during the match. Vinnie Jones had taken man to man marking to a whole new level. It certainly made Gazza's eyes water. Jones had also formed an excellent midfield partnership with Dennis Wise, a fine footballer and another cheeky chappy.

The Gazza incident added fuel to the fire, by now Wimbledon were the self appointed Crazy Gang. The original Crazy Gang were a team of 1930's British Music Hall comedians led by Bud Flanagan. Bud and his chums were a chaotic but lovable rabble. Football purists were applying rabble as an accurate description of Wimbledon's Crazy Gang. Their long ball tactics and off the pitch antics were not to everyone's taste.

The critics looked to have had the last laugh when Dave Bassett resigned and became Watford manager in the Summer of 1987. Former Coventry City manager Bobby Gould was named the new Wimbledon boss. Gould appointed England coach Don Howe as his number 2. Howe had coached Gould when he was a player at Arsenal. In an earlier post I described how Gould briefly transformed the fortunes of the Sky Blues. He had an eye for a bargain, Terry Gibson was one of his first signings, the striker had proved a big success when he played under Gould at Highfield Road.

The new management duo slightly refined the Dons approach but the success continued. Having beaten West Bromwich Albion and Mansfield Town, Wimbledon faced Newcastle United in the 5th round of the FA Cup. A raucous St James Park crowd were silenced on 6 minutes when Gibson headed home a Wise free kick. Wimbledon doubled their lead in similar fashion when Brian Gayle nodded in Wise's 57th minute free kick. Newcastle reduced their arrears a minute later when Neil MacDonald scored. But Fashanu's dipping 86 minute volley clinched a memorable win.

The Crazy Gang were drawn at home to Watford in the Quarter Finals. There was no sentimental Plough Lane return for Dave Bassett. The Hornets had sacked Harry and were mired in a relegation battle, in contrast Wimbledon were flying high in the First Division. The form book looked to have been turned on its head when Malcolm Allen's goal gave Watford a 19th minute lead. The visitors must have really fancied their chances when Gayle was sent off for elbowing Allen, it completed a miserable afternoon for Gayle whose mistake had led to Watford's goal.

Bobby Gould responded by taking off Alan Cork at half time. The striker was replaced by defender Eric Young. On the surface a strange move by the Wimbledon manager. Playing with 10 men and a goal down, you might have expected Gould to throw on an extra attacker. But 3 minutes into the second half the gaffer looked a genius. The Dons equalised when Eric Yong headed home yet another Wise free kick. The substitute's leveler knocked the stuffing out of The Hornets. On 73 minutes John Fashanu shook off his marker and lashed the ball past Tony Coton. 2-1 to Wimbledon, the Crazy Gang were in the last 4.

Wimbledon faced Luton Town in a White Hart Lane Semi Final. Instead of arriving in a plush state of the art coach, The Dons pitched up in a Mini Bus. More Sunday League then top league, the Crazy Gang spirit was still alive and kicking. The dream looked like fading when Mick Harford gave Luton a 48th minute lead. But yet again the Dons spirit came to the fore. Luton were to suffer the same fate as their deadly rivals Watford. On 56 minutes Wimbledon equalised, Fashanu drilled home a penalty after Terry Gibson had been hauled down by hatters goalkeeper Andy Dibble. With 10 minutes remaining Dennis Wise poked in Alan Cork's cross. It was a magnificent result against a fine side. Luton went on to win the League Cup that season.

Impressive as the Semi Final victory was. Wimbledon's FA Cup; Final opponents were different gravy. Kenny Dalglish's all conquering Liverpool team were waiting at Wembley. The Reds were League Champions and looking to complete their second double in three years. A marvelous forward line of Peter Beardsley, John Aldridge and John Barnes had swept all before them.

All this meant nothing to The Crazy Gang and Vincent Jones in particular. As the teams lined up in the tunnel the midfielder bellowed a roar of encouragement. He hadn't finished yet, in the early stages of the match Jones steamed into Steve McMahon. The bone crushing tackle shook McMahon, a fine midfielder an no shrinking violet himself . Jones was not even booked for the challenge, he later admitted that the tackle was pre planned. The clear intention was to unnerve the red hot favourites. The plan did not seem to be baring fruit when Beardsley appeared to have given Liverpool the lead. However, the strike was ruled out for offside.

Buoyed by their reprieve Wimbledon took a shock lead in the 37th minute. The goal was from page one of the Crazy Gang playbook. Dennis Wise's floated free kick was glanced on by Lawrie Sanchez ,The header flew into the top corner of the net leaving Reds goalkeeper Bruce Grobelaaar rooted to the spot (shown in cover
photo). The goal was a carbon copy of those scored against Newcastle and Watford. You wouldn't have expected a team as accomplished as Liverpool to have fallen into the same trap.

The Reds continued to press and appeared to have got their reward on the hour. Wimbledon Full Back Clive Goodyear was adjudged to have fouled John Aldridge in the box by referee Brian Hill and Liverpool were awarded a penalty. As Aldridge stepped up, BBC commentator John Motson reminded viewers that "No penalty had ever been missed in a FA Cup Final." Within seconds history had been rewritten. Beasent dived to his left and tipped Aldridge's spot kick around the post. Liverpool's challenge was effectively ended.

The triumph was particularly sweet for Bobby Gould. As Coventry City manager he had signed many of the players who had won the cup 12 months earlier. But a run of poor form saw him sacked at Highfield Road. As a Coventrian born and bred, it must have hurt him to miss out on his beloved Sky Blues greatest day. Dave Beasent lifted the trophy and made more history, become the first goalkeeper to captain a FA Cup winning team in a century.

Financial pressures saw the cup winning team break up. Vinnie Jones became a film star. Vincent Jones was never the bad boy the media portrayed him. A footballer who would interrupt his pre-match routine to help disabled fans to their seats, Vinnie also forged a life long friendship with Paul Gascoigne. Helping Gazza in his life long battle with alcoholism. Tragedy struck when Jones wife died of Cancer in 2019.

Wimbledon were relegated from the Premier League in 2002 . A year later the club did not even exist. Controversial chairman Charles Koppel feared bankruptcy and moved the whole club to Milton Keynes. The rebranded club were christened the MK Dons. Understandably furious Wimbledon fans formed a phoenix club. AFC Wimbledon rose through the none league pyramid and regained their Football League place in 2011.

Johnny Rotten had also undergone a make over. In the early 00s he was advertising butter on TV.