Hilarious hijinks and hoofball? The real story of Wimbledon's Crazy Gang
It’s funny how things work out.
AFC Wimbledon's underdog tale bears all the hallmarks of a unique, triumph-over-adversity potboiler, with a victorious march through the non-league divisions taking them to within swinging distance of the club owners who took away their team in the first place. At first, playing MK Dons was a dream; the reality was all about survival. Now they've managed both, it's onto bigger things – promotion to the third tier is the long-term aim, but first, this weekend's FA Cup repeat of the 1988 Final in which the Dons conquered Liverpool against all odds.
But the truth is, this story isn’t unique at all. In fact, it happened to the very same outfit over 30 years ago: the original Wimbledon achieved a near-identical feat when they were elected to the Football League in 1977.
AFC will have to go some to match the achievements of Wimbledon Mk1. Within nine years of earning election to the Football League, they had charged all the way up to the top flight.
If their arrival in the old First Division was seen as something of a shock, victories against the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester United and Aston Villa, culminating in a sixth-place finish – a position worthy of a place in Europe today – and subsequently an FA Cup victory, was the stuff of pure fantasy.
“We were a fairy tale, but our fairy tale was supposed to end with us going straight back down,” says legendary Dons manager Dave ‘Harry’ Bassett. “That didn’t happen and nobody liked the fact that little Wimbledon came up and managed to stay up. By the end of that first season in the top flight, we were like a wasp in the room to the division’s other teams.”
“Our floodlights were crap”
The early blueprints for Wimbledon’s successes were drawn up by former chairman Ron Noades, who would later own Crystal Palace and secure Wimbledon's controversial groundsharing move there when they left Plough Lane in 1991.
Already an amateur team of some repute since forming in 1889, the Dons turned semi-pro in 1964/65 on entering the old Southern League (at non-league’s highest regional tier). They became the first non-league team that century to beat a top-flight club in the FA Cup, when Burnley were dispatched at Turf Moor in the 1974/75 season.
In the next round they drew with champions Leeds at Elland Road before losing the replay. That season, they won the Southern League, retaining it in 1976 and again in 1977. The Dons were banging at the door of the Football League.
However, in the years before automatic promotion, getting elected to the old boys' club wasn’t easy. Wimbledon had to prove they were capable hosts for pro football – which is where Noades’ entrepreneurial skill came in.
“Our floodlights were crap,” he explains. “When we produced a brochure to assist our promotion campaign I put a picture of an evening game in there with the lights on. Underneath I wrote, ‘An evening game at Plough Lane showing the quality of the floodlights’. Everybody read it as meaning they were fantastic when they were awful. There was a lot of kidology involved.”
It worked: Wimbledon were elected and the Crazy Gang was born, though they were soon to experience the first hiccups that arrive with the first flushes of professionalism.
Defender Dave Donaldson, for example, had signed from Walton & Hersham and was on £14 a week; he’d previously supplemented his income with a well-paid job at British Airways. To keep him happy initially, the club – and BA – created a timetable which allowed him to fulfil both roles.
By the time the Dons were preparing to play in the Fourth Division in 1977, everyone in the team was on a full-time contract – everyone, that is, apart from Donaldson. At 36, and with little else to fall back on, he was reluctant to abandon his post-football career. The club kept him on, however, and Donaldson maintained an air of professionalism: if he was ever stuck in London and looking unlikely to make an evening kick-off in some faraway corner of the north, he’d hop on a plane to get there.
But even as they played their first games in Division Four, Noades realised the club would be unable to compete in the transfer market – so he set up a youth development programme. “We didn’t have a lot of money,” he says. “A lot of our team that did so well in the First Division came from our youth system,” says Bassett. “We had an academy before they became fashionable.”