Let’s go back before to the days of Milton Keynes Dons and AFC Wimbledon. When an unknown team from South-West London had been quietly working their way through the Isthmian Leagues, winning eight league titles along the way. Having won three successive Southern League Championships, they finally were elected to the football league ready for the 1977/78 season.
The team was Wimbledon FC.
— Football Memories (@footballmemorys) May 4, 2016
Before we get into the Crazy Gang, Vinnie Jones, Dennis Wise and John Fashanu. Let’s look at the Wombles and their dramatic rise to stardom. We would say this is a story of rags to riches but this is more rags to rags. In the eyes of the purists, this is a footballing fairy tale, not that I would ever call Vinnie Jones a fairy; not to his face anyway.
So for the next five years Wimbledon would yo-yo between the old Fourth Division and Third Division. Even then, the club was not adverse to controversy. The then owner, Ron Noades, had been in talks trying to move the club to a new town, none other than Milton Keynes. Noades then walked out of the club taking manager Dario Gradi with him to Crystal Palace. Assistant manager Dave Bassett was promoted to manager, a move that proved an extremely good decision.
Then came one of the most dramatic rises in football. The Dons triumphed in the Fourth Division to gain promotion to Division Three in 1982/83 season, going up as League champions. The success didn’t stop there, as the following season they were promoted again finishing runners-up and suddenly Wimbledon were into the Second Division.
People were predicting a long season, even their own supporters were expecting a struggle but they finished a creditable 12th place.
There was more to come for The Wombles. The next season they achieved the incredible feat of promotion to the top division, Wimbledon FC would be playing in Division One in the English league. When you consider that nine years previously they had been being elected to the football league, this was an amazing achievement.
The football was never pretty, however Wimbledon played to their strengths and hit the ball long; using the strength of the strikers to score goals. Now it was time for the big boys to face the team many pundits were predicting to come straight back down to Division Two.
The Crazy Gang
It was around this time that the ‘Crazy Gang’ tag was born. A nickname that the English media had given Wimbledon because of their antics on and off the pitch. Off the pitch the players were strong willed, they had to be with the amount of pranks during training.
BT Sport's The Crazy Gang doc *is* crazy – http://t.co/ZOTJstUgE4
— James G (@partychancer) May 16, 2015
Nigel Winterburn recalled his initiation to the Crazy Gang,
“I had my shoes nailed to the floor and Ralgex in my pants straight away”
Nigel Winterburn speaking to Leo Moynihan
But this is what gave the team their togetherness. The team spirit was fantastic, with a never say die attitude on the pitch.
As Vinnie Jones said…
“If you couldn’t handle the stripping and the pranks and the abuse, you were f*****g out. Simple as that.”
Vinnie Jones speaking to BT Sport
The Ghetto blaster would be pumping out garage music from the dressing room, driving the opposition crazy. It must of been like having a noisy neighbour and not being able to do anything about it. There was no escape from their madness.
Wimbledon may of played route one football but it was effective. The strength throughout the team was immense. Vinnie Jones, Wally Downes, Alan Cork, Lawrie Sanchez, John Fashanu, Carlton Fairweather, Dennis Wise, Nigel Winterburn and Dave Beasant. They may not of been household names but it would not be long before they were on everyone’s lips.
At the end of that first season in the top flight, manager Dave Bassett left for Sheffield United and in came Bobby Gould and assistant manager Don Howe, both turned out as inspired appointments.
FA Cup final 1988
The 1987/88 season was their most successful. The Dons finished seventh in Division 1 and they still had an FA Cup final to look forward to against the giant’s of 80’s English football, Liverpool.
Liverpool, managed by Kenny Dalglish, had players such as John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, John Aldridge, and Bruce Grobbelaar to name a few. Liverpool had a plethora of international talent throughout the team and were clear favourites. But when did Wimbledon take any notice of that?
Bobby Gould had intentionally put the clocks back in the dressing room, making the Liverpool players wait in the tunnel. When they decided to come out the dressing room, the tag ‘Crazy Gang’ rang true, and if Liverpool thought this small South-West London team would be overawed by the occasion, they were very much mistaken. The players came out shouting and screaming like men possessed, definitely not something the Reds players had witnessed before.
The game kicked-off and Vinnie Jones took out Steve McMahon early, Wimbledon would not be going quietly. When the first goal came, it was Wimbledon on the scoresheet. Just before half-time a free-kick, taken by Dennis Wise was floated into the Liverpool area, Lawrie Sanchez rose and got his head on to the ball and flicked it into the net.
What had just happened? Surely this won’t last, this is Liverpool they are playing.
Then 15 minutes into the second-half Liverpool had a penalty. Surely now normal service would resume. John Aldridge stepped up, against Wimbledon keeper Dave Beasant. Aldridge started his run up and placed the ball to Beasant’s left. The big goalkeeper guessed the right way and threw out his hand and for the first time in an FA Cup final a penalty had been saved.
— Football Memories (@footballmemorys) July 25, 2014
Wimbledon held on until the final whistle and suddenly pandemonium in the stands. The ‘Crazy Gang’ had done it, they had, against all odds, won the FA Cup against the best team in English Football.
After the final whistle, John Motson, commentating for the BBC delivered his famous line
“The Crazy Gang have beaten the culture club”.
John Motson on the BBC
Wimbledon. FA Cup winners 1988 pic.twitter.com/tgG2agDPCW
— The League Magazine (@Theleaguemag) April 21, 2016
Wimbledon continued to defy the pundits and mix it with the top teams in Division 1, finishing around mid-table year after year.
As they entered the 1997/98 season, suddenly there was signs of decline. The club found themselves battling in the lower reaches of the Premiership. But the 1999/2000 season ended in disaster as they found themselves relegated from the top flight.
— Wimbledon FC (@Wimbledon__FC) May 14, 2016
The talk of relocating to Milton Keynes reared its ugly head and in 2002, the club had permission to move. For supporters against the move, a new club was born in the name of AFC Wimbledon. A majority of fans switched to supporting the newly formed club.
As the crowds evaporated over time, the inevitable happened in 2003. Wimbledon FC went into administration, assets were sold, and it left the club little chance in the league. They finished bottom of the Championship and the following season they had been brought out of administration and renamed as Milton Keynes Dons.
Wimbledon FC were no more.
For years they had upset the footballing world, taking the top division by storm, roughing it up and spitting it out. They may of been unorthodox in everything they did, from training, to initiating new players, to being out on the pitch. But they made the football community sit up and take notice. This is what football is all about. But one things for sure, there won’t ever be another Wimbledon FC.
RIP ‘Crazy Gang’.
Wimbledon didn’t stop their players from overachieving, but which clubs have held players back from success?