The forgotten FA Cup winners - The Crazy Gang from Wimbledon FC
The story of how a small but notorious club rose up against all odds to beat Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final.
In 1988, the equivalent of a footballing travesty occurred to English football, or to most of English football anyway. These were the telling words that were uttered by legendary football commentator John Motson after the match, “The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club!”
English football prided itself on advocating the best brand of football – displayed by its finest exponent then, Liverpool FC. Wimbledon FC had just triumphed 1-0 over them in an FA Cup final.
But this underdog victory was not appreciated as an against-all-odds victory for David over Goliath – far from it. In fact, the media had called for a Liverpool FC rout in the days leading up to the big match. A large portion of the footballing world wanted Wimbledon FC to suffer an embarrassing defeat and get cut down to size.
It was an unusual situation, where people unabashedly called for the underdog to lose, and lose in a humiliating manner. So one can understand then, when Wimbledon FC went on to edge Liverpool FC 1-0, that it was at best a bitter pill to swallow, and at worst a catastrophe. But why were Wimbledon FC considered to be such villains?
Wimbledon FC had enjoyed a meteoric rise in English football. In 1978, they had just won promotion to the fourth division. By 1988, they were firmly cemented as a top flight team and had also won the FA Cup. In the process, they had gained three consecutive promotions in just four seasons.
However, due credit was rarely given to the club or its players. Here is a look at just why the incredible achievements of a “Sunday League” club on the big stage have not been marked as a worthy footnote in the FA Cup’s much touted rich history and tradition.
How a “Sunday League club” gained popularity and notoriety
Wimbledon FC pioneered a brand of football that was christened “Route One” by then manager Dave “Harry” Bassett. Its philosophy was simple – why try to string 20 or 25 passes together in an attempt to bring the ball near the opponent’s penalty box, when one pass was all it took? Bassett’s tactics would come under constant criticism from the media, but the faith that he had in his strategy was unwavering.
How could he not be? He did not have a choice.
Bassett had often defended the way Wimbledon FC played by justifying that he was only playing in a manner that best utilized the strength of his players. The media, and especially the other teams, did not appreciate how literally truthful Bassett was being; Wimbledon FC played on the fact that nobody liked them, which is perhaps the reason why they played the way they played.
In attack, their mantra was simple. Their goal keeper would kick the ball long and as close to the opposition penalty area as he could manage, and the opposition defenders would then be surrounded by a plethora of on-rushing Wimbledon players. These Wimbledon players would mow down the opposition players challenging for the ball, break through the opposition defence and force the ball through the grasp of the opposition keeper.
It wasn’t a different picture while defending either. In those days, referees were more lenient about calling body contact fouls during games, and players could get away with elbows and kicks on a regular basis. This played right into Wimbledon FC’s hands, as it was customary for players of other clubs to be more concerned about their own bodily safety rather than the three points, when they came down to Plough Lane to play.
I am not just talking about an extremely physical style of play used by the team on the pitch, but also of a culture of intimidation bred by the club off it. Wimbledon FC, in that period from 1978 to 1988, dealt in intimidation and fear.
For instance, consider Plough Lane, Wimbledon FC’s home stadium. It housed around 15,000 to 16,000 people, and in all aspects, it was a far cry from the stadiums that other top flight teams boasted.
The away team changing rooms were kept cold and unclean and the drain pipes would be leaking in the changing room bathrooms. The tea that was offered to the visiting team would be mixed with salt, and as if that were not enough, the club also used to maintain the pitch in a water-logged state so that passing the ball around quickly became almost impossible. On the other hand, it promoted the Route One style of play that Wimbledon FC employed.
When other teams had to make the away trip to Wimbledon, they were wary of the diminished facilities, the untended pitch and most of all, the prospect of dealing with the in-your-face and sometimes brutal style of their football team. Suffice to say that visiting teams used to dread the away fixture to Wimbledon FC each year.
Violence was a constant with Wimbledon players’ and staff
The players of Wimbledon FC were a curious bunch to say the least. It was a player group, comprising of many angry young men who had seen only the harsher realities of life while growing up. It is perhaps understandable why their collective mentality towards the world as a whole was rather bleak; the Wimbledon FC players were of the opinion that the world looked down on them and derided their very presence among the other elite football clubs in the first division.
As a result, each match was played in the spirit of defiance and with unbridled aggression sometimes bordering on reckless abandon. Tunnel bust-ups, reckless and dangerous tackling, high elbows and obscene language were constantly served up to opposition teams, and with a special intensity if they were visiting Plough Lane. Opposition teams dreaded making the trip there, so much so that mentally, they had already lost the match before it even started.
It might have been unsophisticated and primitive, but one could not deny that Route One was extremely effective.
The team dynamic that upheld such sustained aggression over that period from 1978 to 1988 was truly one to behold. The dressing room was filled with practical jokers, to term it economically. The players used to ‘take the mickey’ out of one another on a fairly regular basis, unless some other typically boisterous stunt was at hand.
Tying a player to the top of a car and taking the car for a spin, locking a player in the boot of the car, and dragging a player through a field covered in snow were some of the pranks most frequently pulled.
What shocked the rest of the English footballing world was that the management of Wimbledon FC was in on the act too. Bassett had left the club in 1987 as he had felt undervalued, and perhaps underpaid. Bobby Gould, the manager who succeeded Bassett, realized that there was no changing the player ethos of the club, and instead adapted himself to suit the players.
To avoid the incessant training ground bust-ups, he introduced the idea of “The Circle”. The players would all stand in a circle, with the two players who have a score to settle in the middle. The two players would then fight it out, albeit now it could be done under both manager and player supervision. Gould himself used the idea once when he had a bone to pick with one of his players, and he ended up with a broken rib for his efforts.
The Lebanese owner and chairman of the club Sam Hammam had a sense of humour and was loved by all the players and fans of the club. He had a clause inserted in player contracts that all the players would have to go to the opera if the team lost any match by four goals or more. That spoke volumes about the kind of man Hammam was, but even more so about the players in the club.
The players of Wimbledon FC were unsurprisingly viewed as ‘hard men’ by the rest of the footballing world. Some players reveled in this description, and one such player was Vinne Jones, who later even went on to make a career in Hollywood out of being a ‘hard man’. John Fashanu was another such ‘hard man’ and the unofficial leader of the player hierarchy at Wimbledon FC. Fashanu was a karate black belt and he was not afraid to show it.
“Fash literally lifted him up, swung him around and smashed him down on the floor and his calf just obliterated. The fella had to have 20 stitches or 30 stitches in his calf, split it to bits.” – Vinnie Jones on John Fashanu’s fight with a team mate.
Wimbledon FC lived the rule of the jungle, where only the strongest survived. Weakness in any form, from team mate or opposition, was preyed upon. As Fashanu surmises, “We ruled by fear. Wonderful.”
The Crazy Gang gets dismantled after the 1988 FA Cup victory
The club’s image, however, did not eclipse the footballing ability that some of its players had. Players like Dennis Wise, Dave Besant and John Scales went on to represent England. Not only that, the players of Wimbledon FC suddenly saw their stock rise after the 1988 FA Cup triumph. The very footballing world that had until then condemned the aggressive mentality of Wimbledon FC, proceeded to pick apart the team during the next transfer window.
Though the club would continue to refer to itself as The Crazy Gang in the years that followed, it was viewed as barely more than a marketing manoeuvre. The core group of players that had earned the moniker had all gone their separate ways and to different clubs.
Years later, the FA Cup final victory that the Crazy Gang enjoyed over Liverpool in 1988 has become one of the lesser talked about historical recalls in the FA Cup. Maybe the footballing world conveniently let time wash over the memory of Vinnie Jones sticking his manhood in manager Bobby Gould’s face when celebrating the victory on the field.
Or maybe it was just that the footballing world could not bring itself to acknowledge the fact that a group of angry young players had achieved success on their terms. Either way, we can agree that Wimbledon FC’s victory over Liverpool FC in 1988 was the very epitome of David versus Goliath; scarily, David emerged victor.