When I was seven years old Dad took me to my first ever football match. It was 1987 and Wimbledon were at home to West Ham in a league game.
I can vividly remember walking into the ground at Plough Lane and looking around in amazement as we stood on the terrace behind one of the goals. I can remember the nervous excitement and bewilderment I felt seeing all these grown men with scarves around their necks shouting loudly. There would have been about 10,000 at Plough Lane on that day but for me it may as well have been 150,000 packed into the Maracana.
Two things struck me. Wimbledon wore this royal blue kit with a yellow trimming which I thought was smashing. And they had this huge big black man playing centre forward and wearing number 9. John Fashanu. He owned the longest pair of legs I had ever seen. Actually he was the biggest, most fearsome man I had seen. I was totally mesmerised.
And thus began a fascination with Wimbledon that lasted throughout my childhood and teenage years and into my early adulthood.
These were the days when football was a physical game, when two footed lunges were part of the game and diving didn’t exist and players wore shorts that were what they were supposed to be – short. They just about covered the essential body parts. Perhaps that’s why I remember Fashanu’s legs so clearly.
As my interest in this team grew to obsessive levels, there were two players inparticular that were God like figures to me. Fashanu and Vinnie Jones. These were the two central figures in ‘the crazy gang’. Two huge, physical, menacing, nasty, controversial men. They always seemed to be in trouble. And I was hooked. All these years later, at the age of 31, I still have Panini stickers of Jones and Fashanu on my bedside locker. My wife to be finds this disturbing but I have refused point blankly to entertain her concerns.
There were other lunatics on this team. A little, vicious five foot five midget on the left wing called Dennis Wise, another big black monster at centre half who wore a head band and never ever smiled called Eric Young, and Dave Beasant, a tall, gangly, loudmouth goalkeeper with a huge head of long, permed hair. Terry Gibson, Lawrie Sanchez and Carlton Fairweather were regular goalscorers and became favourites of mine as did the little terrier like left back, Terry Phelan.
This very team would go onto create probably the biggest shock in FA Cup history when they defeated the mighty Liverpool in the final in 1988. This was a time when winning the FA Cup actually mattered and meant something. I can remember sitting at home on that fine, sunny May Saturday in my Wimbledon kit excitedly watching the build up and Dad explaining that there was a very good chance that Liverpool were going to win – obviously trying to prepare me for the inevitable. Of course I didn’t understand that and I didn’t appreciate either that this would be the only trophy I would ever see the club win. A few years ago I got a copy of the game on DVD from Santa Claus and so every so often I’ll wipe away the dust and treat myself to a viewing of this magical moment.
My love of ‘the crazy gang’ brought me widespread attention throughout my schooldays. I was always the only Wimbledon fan at school and people used to boldly proclaim I was the first Wimbledon fan they had ever met. I was a novelty and thoroughly embraced this. So when it came to collecting stickers, which I did until I was far too old to be doing so, I had a huge advantage being a Dons fan. The other lads never wanted Dean Blackwell or Alan Kimble or Warren Barton so I always had easy trades and it never took more than a week or two to complete my Wimbledon page. And I never, ever traded my Wimbledon spares.
I started reading tabloid newspapers at about age 7 and would read the sport section from back to front. I started making scrapbooks on the Dons not long after I began my association with them. So as soon as a newspaper came into our house I would seize it, read it and cut out any articles or pictures related to Wimbledon. My butchering of the paper before anyone else could read it caused huge conflict in the house, and this went on for years. When I was 11 I became fully independent of my parents and started purchasing my own newspapers. I still have those scrapbooks and I’m immensely proud of my work.
I had only been following Wimbledon for a year or so when my parents moved from South West London to the town of Luton. This was a logistical nightmare for me. Luton was 40 miles north of London. Half the kids in my new class supported Luton Town. Weirdo’s. Trips to Plough Lane and later Selhurst Park became less common. Visits to Kenilworth Road became more frequent but I was always very aware that I was watching an inferior product. The frequency of my trips to see Wimbledon play diminished but my love for the club never did. Obviously the annual Luton – Wimbledon fixture became the biggest thing in my world.
When Vinnie Jones left the club in 1989 to join Leeds my heart was broken. I was too young and innocent then to harbour any ill-feeling or animosity to a person I loved more than any member of my immediate family, and I still followed his career closely at Leeds, Sheffield United and Chelsea and he remained my favourite player. But when he rejoined the club in 1992 the earth was once again revolving on its axis. The prodigal son had returned. When Fash left to join Aston Villa in 1994 I was mature enough and wise enough then to realise it was the end of an era. He left with my full blessing and goodwill and gratitude.
From about the time when I started kicking a football, I’ve modelled my game on Jonesie. He collected red cards like I collected Panini stickers – and all it did was endear him to me even more. He was and is, without doubt, the dirtiest player there has been. It’s a closed case. He was the ferocious, fearsome leader of ‘the crazy gang’. He brought all the attention on himself and stuck his chest out and put his two feet in – waist high. I specifically remember a game against Sheffield United in 1992 when he got booked after 3 seconds, a world record, for clattering Dane Whitehouse.
I’m not sure I should be writing this – but I will anyway – when ‘Fash the Bash’ almost split Gary Mabbutt’s head in two pieces with one of his customary elbows in a league game at White Hart Lane in 1994, my reaction was one of amazement. Wow. It was one of the most impressive acts of physical prowess I had seen. The universal condemnation of the act in the media did nothing to dilute my awe.
I still play football today, competitively, and at a reasonably decent level, and I still try to play like Vinnie Jones. People who know me will tell you that I am a fairly rounded individual – there’s just something about the sounds of bones clashing that has always had huge appeal to me. Ever since I was a kid I have got much more of a buzz from a crunching tackle than a defence splitting pass or a well taken goal. I even enjoy being clattered. Watching Lionel Messi beat six players and lobbing the keeper from 20 yards has never done it for me. Watching Barcelona compile 70 or 80 passes is boring. Sounds perverse doesn’t it ? I think for this reason myself and ‘the crazy gang’ were the perfect fit.
Obviously through the years players and managers came and went at Wimbledon and different teams evolved. There were stale periods but when Joe Kinnear came along his side provided me with some memorable years. We were into the Sky Sports era and the Premiership and football was changing but Joe’s team still very much lived up to the billing of ‘the crazy gang’. Jones was still the heartbeat of the team and still getting sent off but there was an altogether new set of characters for me to worship. Alongside Jones in the middle was a man Wimbledon fans came to know as ‘God’. Robbie Earle. Wimbledon’s best ever player. An accolade he is probably not aware of is that he became only the second ever player to have his name and number on the back of one of my jerseys. Earle was an altogether different breed of Wimbledon footballer – stylish, elegant and oozing quality.
That particular side – Wimbledon’s best ever – circa 1996 and 1997, also contained Marcus Gayle, Dean Holdsworth, Efan Ekoku and Oyvind Leonhardsen (a little magician). In 1997 the Dons finished 6th in the league and reached two semi-finals. I sat there crying like a baby when Leicester beat us in the Worthington Cup semi-final, which was a little embarrassing as my mum was in the room. And I sat there dejected and miserable as a Ruud Gullit inspired Chelsea dumped us out of the FA Cup, only one step away from Wembley. Nevertheless they are beautiful memories.
I could write a book about the demise of the club and what went wrong but I’ll leave that for another day. Joe Kinnear had a heart attack before a game against Sheffield Wednesday in 1999 Sam Hammam then sold to club to Norwegian businessmen. Egil Olsen came in as Manager and set about destroying the club with the help of his Norwegian owner friends. Eventually he was sacked and Terry Burton came in but could not save the club from relegation in 1999. There were a couple of seasons in the Championship, at which point Charles Koppel had acquired the club with the sole intention of moving it to Milton Keynes, 90 km north of Wimbledon. The Wimbledon fans vehemently opposed this move but it was eventually sanctioned by the FA and franchise football had arrived. Wimbledon FC were dead and the MK Dons were born.
Milton Keynes is a purpose built, modern metropolis – totally devoid of character. In the middle of it is the MK Bowl, a 22,000 all seater, soulless creation. This is home to the MK Dons, currently one of the stronger sides in League One and financially healthy and they have ambitions to move up the ladder in English football. I couldn’t wish them anything but bad fortune and bad times. They are a club with no history, no heritage and no morals.
AFC Wimbledon are the result of this sad story. Only it is not so sad anymore. The club was set up in 2002 by the disgruntled fans following the collapse of Wimbledon. Their rise through the leagues has been remarkable and mirrors that of the old Wimbledon. They are now operating in League Two and continue to get stronger each year. They have been officially credited with the history of Wimbledon FC – and to all intents and purposes are now operating as that club. I follow their progress closely and would obviously love to see them continue to rise through the leagues. Whatever success that comes their way is fully deserved in my view.
I must admit though – it’s just not the same. I’ve tried to become a proper fan but the love and dedication and pride and passion is just not there. Around the time Wimbledon were in the championship and it became obvious what was about to happen was around the time I just stopped caring. The club had already been destroyed at that point. I’m glad they’ve rebuilt the club and have huge admiration for what’s been achieved – but I’m just not that same obsessed kid who begged and begged his mum to be allowed a Vinnie Jones haircut, and practised for hours on end the Jones snarl in the mirror, and who harmoniously lived in cloud cuckoo land and whose world revolved around ‘the crazy gang’.
I often wonder how Jones and Fash the Bash and the boys would get on in today’s game. Well not good is the conclusion I’ve made. Jones wouldn’t last five minutes on a pitch. His first tackle would be a straight red.
There will never be another team or another story like ‘the crazy gang’.
It seems like a lifetime ago.
It’s footballs loss