A new documentary celebrates the ramshackle, unhinged majesty that was Wimbledon FC’s Crazy Gang. Leo Moynihan reunites some notorious members
Saturday 14 May 1988. It’s just gone 4.45pm and a referee’s final whistle fills the north London sky, only to be drowned out by audible gasps as the footballing world takes in what it has just witnessed. Wimbledon – only 10 years in the Football League – have beaten Liverpool, the league champions, and won the FA Cup. Wimbledon of Plough Lane, anti-establishment, madness and mayhem, but here they are receiving the trophy from Diana, Princess Of Wales. John Motson in the Wembley commentary box has seen plenty of shocks, but this feels different; this feels edgier. “The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club,” he says. A nickname and legendary football tribe is born. This is their story…
Sunday League Superstars
“Journey” is a word best consigned to teary X Factor eviction reels, but when Wimbledon replaced Workington in the Football League in 1977, it was the start of something special. Four years later, Dave Bassett took over from Dario Gradi as manager and the Crazy Gang era truly began.
Nigel Winterburn: Arriving at training was an eye-opener. They were public pitches and the dressing rooms were through a café. You couldn’t leave your stuff in there because the café was packed with all sorts. It was Sunday League stuff. We’d take our bags out on to the pitch to train. I used to take my training kit home to wash myself. Oh, and I bought my own boots. The pranks started immediately. I had my shoes nailed to the floor and Ralgex in my pants straight away. The manager, Dave Bassett, might not have liked it, but he didn’t have a say. We’d travel and it was Dave’s bed that more often than not would end up outside his room or, on one occasion, in the swimming pool.
Vinnie Jones: If you couldn’t handle the stripping and the pranks and the abuse, you were f*cking out. Simple as that.
Gary Blissett: We’d go for a jog in the morning, away from the staff, and that’s where bad things could happen. If it was your birthday or you were new, you’d get jumped on and stripped naked and left to make your own way back across six fields full of dog walkers. The locals were used to us. “Oh look, it must be his birthday today,” they’d say.
Bobby Gould: Some players struggled with it. Terry Phelan arrived and had a lot of ‘banter’. He came to me in tears. “I can’t handle it, boss,” he said. I knew Terry’s strength was his running, so I told Don Howe [coach] to do nothing but f*cking run them for a whole morning’s session. Terry won every single race, the players had new respect for him and he was one of them from then on.
But then there was Eric Young, who came from Brighton & Hove Albion and used to come in with a blue bag with the Brighton seagull on it. The players weren’t having that and when Eric was getting treatment they set fire to the bag and all its contents. They danced around this fire until the fire brigade turned up.
THE DONS OF LONG BALL
Lumping it up front – famously described as “route one football” by Bassett, was not invented by Wimbledon. Graham Taylor got the England job having championed it in the early Eighties, but the Dons did it with extra panache. What Barcelona have done for the passing game, the Crazy Gang did for hoofing it. It was a style that earned them promotion to the First Division.
Gould: When I first arrived, we sat the guys down and were about to start a presentation on how we wanted them to play. “Stop right there,” they said. “Sit down, Gouldy. Sit down, Don. This is how we play and we’ve had a lot of success. We ain’t changing for no one.” They wrote the number 172 on the chart. “Know what that means?”
“That is the amount of times we need to get the ball into the attacking third.” Then they wrote 44 on the board. “That is the amount of times our wingers need to get crosses into our strikers. If they don’t, they are back in on Sunday for extra training. We ain’t changing and don’t think you can make us. Don, you might have coached England, but the only person changing here is you.”
Winterburn: It was like a pub team: get the ball forward quickly. It was simple but effective. Knock the ball into channels. I couldn’t kick the ball that far when I arrived.
Gould: Fash [John Fashanu, striker] once marched new boy John Scales into my office and said, “Gouldy, he’s f*cking useless. He can’t kick the ball.” I knew, though, that John could run, and so I had them work together after training on John finding Fash with long balls, and soon it worked perfectly.
SPIRIT OF ’88
After Bassett made way for Gould, Wimbledon found themselves in the biggest game of their relatively short football league lives. They were going to Wembley to play Liverpool in the FA Cup final. No one gave them a chance. But they were going to enjoy it.
Jones: A lot of people were mouthing off about how we didn’t deserve to be there and a club like ours shouldn’t be gracing a final. We were called f*cking thugs.
No one gave us a f*cking chance. We did do a really crap song, though. Liverpool did a rap. We all watched it and thought, “F*ck, we’re Wimbledon. How have they done a better song than us?”
Gould: A lot of my players had never even been to Wembley, so I bribed the groundsman to get us in early and get a feel for the place.
Jones: The night before, we were cats on a hot tin roof. The thing is, this was serious. We couldn’t go around smashing people’s rooms up and all that, so it was hard to know what to do with ourselves. Bobby gave the lads a bit of cash and told them to go down the pub and have a few to relax. We went and it was full of our fans. Slowly they recognised me, then Fash and Wisey [Dennis Wise] and they were like, “Hold on, you’re playing in the final tomorrow!”
Wisey and me were up at 6.30 and headed down the high road. I got a crap haircut and then had the idea that we should buy flowers for the guest of honour, Princess Di. I was going to smuggle this flower on to the pitch and hand it to her. I bottled it, though. Only thing I ever bottled in my life.
Gould: Don was wily and he put the clocks back in our dressing room so we’d be late out, and therefore keep Liverpool waiting in the tunnel.
Jones: We left them lined up for a long time. The officials were screaming into our dressing room, “You have to come now.” “F*ck off! Let them wait.” We were like wild animals when we came out. They looked in our eyes and must have thought, “What the f*ck is this?” They might have thought we’d be scared because of the occasion. F*ck the occasion!
I did Steve McMahon early in the game. Whack. He landed on me with his elbow and cut my face. I rather admired him for that. We got our goal, though, and just kept the shape. Dennis did a job on John Barnes and they couldn’t find any rhythm. We won the Cup.
Gould: In the dressing room afterwards, Sam [chairman, Sam Hammam] came over to me and said, “Right, Bobby – they’re all for sale. This is our peak and we must make sure we capitalise on all our assets.” That was sad.
END OF AN ERA
In the end, Hammam mostly had his way. Jones went to Leeds (before returning in 1992), and Wise moved to Chelsea in 1990, but more than anything, the Crazy Gang way began to look out of place in the slick, professional world of the Premier League.
Blissett: Manchester United hated us. We had the sound system blaring out all this garage music. They had these big security guards at Old Trafford and they would grimace at us as we walked in and wedged the master blaster in the door and turned it up as loud as possible. The guards wouldn’t have got past Vinnie and Fash to turn it off, mind...
Jones: Clubs hated that thing. They used to take out electric sockets to stop us. Of course, we’d just use batteries. People hated playing us, and who could blame them? This wasn’t just a football team, it was an attack on the senses. It was the Crazy Gang.
Gould: If you could imagine the worst comprehensive school, that’s what I walked into every morning. I loved the team spirit, but I hated all the gambling for money on the team bus, so I went to the chairman. Soon a pair of scissors came on away trips. The pool of card players was now, instead of playing for money, having to have a garment of clothing cut to shreds if they lost. We’d get off the bus with one player’s trouser leg cut to ribbons.
Blissett: By 1994, when we came sixth, yes, we were direct but we had good players. Warren Barton, John Scales, Robbie Earle. We beat the double winners Manchester United. We were good.
Jones: Today’s players are thoroughbreds. We were stray alley cats. I remember we were turned away from the Ritz on a night out once. “There’s a pub round the corner you might like,” they said. We were mongrels but, my God, we had some f*cking fun.
BT Sport Films’ The Crazy Gang premieres on 26 December on BT Sport 1 at 9pm