As bruising midfielder Lawrie Sanchez cemented himself into English football folklore by heading in the winning goal against Liverpool in the FA Cup final in 1988 – a connection from a set-piece, by all methods – Wimbledon Football Club completed one of the biggest upsets in FA Cup history and seemingly impossible rise to glory.
Given the gulf in technical quality between the two teams, with Liverpool assembling a side vastly decorated with European and domestic success, to see the Crazy Gang lift the most prestigious trophy in English football at the time was a surprise to say the least; particularly so given that a fledgling Wimbledon side were making their mark in the fourth division just five years earlier.
The infamous Crazy Gang had developed a reputation for their overly aggressive, direct, and intimidating approach to football, often taking pragmatism and foul-play to complete extremes. “The best way to watch Wimbledon is on Ceefax,” famously quipped Gary Lineker, with the likes of Gary Mabbutt and Gary Stevens being on the end of skull-crushing elbows and career-ending tackles, respectively. While unsightly and at times controversial, this ruthless philosophy was key to the club’s rapid elevation through the divisions and was a pivotal springboard to the club’s success.
It was 1982 and David Bassett’s Wimbledon side had just been relegated back to the fourth division. Like most teams at the time, the Dons aspired to play attractive and flamboyant football despite their lack of resources, resulting in the south-west London outfit to flounder in the lower-leagues. A relatively small club with a scarce fan base, Wimbledon simply couldn’t afford to bring in the quality needed to succeed in style.
After a poor start to the 1982-83 season, Bassett decided that a paradigm shift was needed to bloom success. “We began the season using a sweeper at the back which worked well. But now we’ve changed to get the ball up to the front every fast. It suits the team,” declared the manager. Quixotic play was sharply abandoned for a more crude yet effective style.
Wimbledon began playing an extremely direct method of percentage football, with Bassett demanding that the team had at least 18 shots, 12 corners and 12 long throws each game. Much to the players’ disgust at playing in such an aesthetically crude style, Wimbledon won the Fourth Division championship with 98 points, the most of any league that year. The results brought the squad on board with the manager’s new philosophy and so began the rise of the Crazy Gang.
Wimbledon secured back-to-back promotions to the Second Division and, despite being favourites for relegation, managed to solidify their status in the second-tier of English football the following season. They continued to add unfancied yet physically aggressive players to their ranks, including defensive midfielder Vinnie Jones and the powerful target man John Fashanu to bolster their physical strategy. The aforementioned pair would form the spine and become the leaders of Gang’s fairy-tale rise to the coveted First Division in 1986.
Despite being written off by fans and pundits alike, Wimbledon became a force to be reckoned with in the top-flight. Plough Lane was a physical manifestation of how much the club were punching above their weight; a small, decrepit stadium with out-dated facilities. Like many great sides, they used this to their advantage.
The away dressing room was unpleasantly cold, rarely cleaned and frequently covered with toilet paper; Wimbledon often added salt in the opposition’s tea just to put the icing on the cake to the grim away-day experience. They would then be welcomed to a game with the onus much more on hard dangerous tackles and strong aerial battles than a game of football.
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“If you walked into our house there were fireworks,” warned Vinnie Jones. So successful had Wimbledon built a brand and reputation built around aggression, physicality and intimidation that sides often went to Plough Lane focussed on escaping injury rather than getting a result – playing perfectly into the Londoners’ hands.
What was more important than the hostile facilities, combative playing staff and direct philosophy was the tight-knit but mentally strong ethos which Wimbledon encouraged throughout the club. Wally Downes, a long-serving midfielder, would use his sharp wit and abrasive humour to test the mental strength of the youth players and new signings. Initiations were brutal, from being dragged across a snow-covered pitch to being tied to the roof of a car while being driven down the nearby A3. “You either grew a backbone quickly or dissolved as a man,” Vinnie Jones quipped.
Once you survived the initiation practical jokes were rife, and the coercion from the senior players such as Fashanu, Jones, Sanchez and Downes were taxing to say the least. Often laughed off as good old-fashioned character-building, there were times where the line was crossed. One unnamed player, who challenged John Fashanu’s authority, got heavily beaten, thrown around the dressing room “like a rag doll” and his calf shattered to pieces by the English international. Fashanu defended his actions by stating: “To get respect you needed an element of fear.” It wasn’t easy being in the Crazy Gang.
This dog-eat-dog environment helped channel the squad’s anger and tenacity onto the pitch and into results. The players recruited often came from difficult backgrounds, showing that they had the mental resilience to survive the dressing room culture and the inner-fire to complement their belligerent mantra. The negative press associated with their unsavoury football, outlandish characters and relatively meagre support further fuelled the siege mentality – the ‘us versus them’ factor – which bonded the group, inspired the players and drove the club to success.
It wasn’t just brute-force and a superfluously boisterous environment which garnered Wimbledon’s success – there was often a calculated edge to their preparations. The chairman and manager purposely inserted a clause into the players’ contracts so that had they lost by four or more goals that they were obligated to go to an opera show – a punishment for the members in the squad at that time.
Tackles would sometimes have been planned in advance, including Jones’ infamous two-footed lunge through Liverpool’s Steve McMahon in the first minute of the FA Cup final. There was another crucial piece of preparation for that fateful day; Dons ‘keeper Dave Beasant had been prepped on Liverpool’s John Aldridge habit of taking his penalties to the goalkeepers left when the stopper stays in the middle of the goal, leading to the critical penalty save which was paramount to Wimbledon lifting the FA Cup. “We’d watched so many videos, if Dave Beasant hadn’t have gone the right way I’d have killed him,” joked Jones.
Unfortunately for the Crazy Gang and the future of the club, the camaraderie and spirit of the side began to implode after their FA Cup heroics in 1988. Success had taken its toll; players began to believe in their own individual ability and lose sight of the power of the collective. The nucleus of the team got poached by rival clubs as players left for more lucrative contracts. The club never managed to recover before notoriously being relocated 90 kilometres north and rebranded to Milton Keynes Dons.
The Crazy Gang may be revered as an unpleasant footnote of the footballing culture of the 1980s by some but their axiomatic ability to create a philosophy and psyche in the endeavour to get results beyond what the club were financially capable of should be commended.
The elements of Wimbledon Football Club at the time mutually reinforced each other, each piece of the club slotting and convening together to build a collective which every team in Britain dreaded playing. The relatively small fan-base allowed the team to play unattractive football without pressure, the lack of funds logically led to a pragmatic roadmap to success and the team ethos synthesised and embodied the direct and aggressive style of play. It all combined and created a highly formidable entity.
Love them or hate them, the Crazy Gang’s rise to the pinnacle of English football is a perfect example of how a highly integrated and coherent strategy can propel a club to success.
By Tom McMahon. Follow @TomMc_Sports