Thursday, 8 January 2015

Wimbledon: The Crazy Gang

I always knew that the story of Wimbledon's rise to fame in the 1980s was entertaining and unusual, but the recent documentary on BT Sport was a real eye opener. Knowing who to believe is always difficult, and Dave Bassett, Terry Gibson and John Scales have been quick to dismiss some of the yarns trotted out by the likes of John Fashanu, Vinnie Jones and Wally Downes, but if you have 78 minutes to spare, then you could do a lot worse things with your time than spend it watching the programme here.

The rise and rise of Wimbledon

The documentary briefly discusses the climb of Wimbledon through the leagues, detailing their rise from Southern League football in 1977 to the old first division in 1986, and ultimately arriving at their day of glory at Wembley just eleven years after joining the Football League. Even now the story is remarkable, one that will never be repeated, in the words of Crazy Gang stalwart Wally Downes.

Downes is probably right; Wimbledon achieved their success on a shoe string budget, so it is hard to envisage a modern day Wimbledon tale. Back in the 1980s though, the club had to find other ways of levelling the playing field, and these elements - the long ball game, Plough Lane, aggression - are covered thoroughly in what makes interesting viewing.

Dave Bassett and the long ball game

Wimbledon actually gained promotion to the old third division under Dave 'Harry' Bassett in 1981, yet relegation a year later, and frustration at the start of the 1982/83 season led the former Wimbledon player to change his tactics. Downes talks about a match that Wimbledon lost 4-2 (possibly Bristol City away or Halifax at home), prompting a furious Bassett to inform the squad that from that day on they would be using a more direct style of football. "It changed overnight," Downes admitted. The club would never look back.

"Why have 25 passes to get there? All of a sudden, it's there," a defensive Bassett states during the programme. Loathe it or hate it, you certainly could not argue with the results. The players involved were definitely not fans, Downes bemoaning the fact that the style in approach was not exactly what he had dreamed of playing when he was a youngster, but Bassett told the dissenters to stick with him and they would go a long way together. Three promotions in four seasons backed up that claim.

Home comforts

Another perceived advantage for Wimbledon was also expanded on: Plough Lane. Throughout their rise, Wimbledon's ground, with very poor facilities and non-league style infrastructure, was often seen as a place that visiting players simply could not wait to get away from.

Gary Lineker emphasises the fact that the dressing rooms were cold and pokey, with examples also given relating to some of the other advantages that the club tried to gain, such as no toilet paper in the visiting dressing rooms, and salt put in the tea. Childish admittedly, but an important part in explaining the Crazy Gang story.

Let's get physical

To some, the long ball tactics adopted by Wimbledon was reason enough to dislike the team, but when coupled with the physical approach used towards opponents, it is not hard to comprehend why so many players, journalists and fans were so opposed to the club. John Fashanu relates the "200% physical" and "hell fire" methods the Crazy Gang used to intimidate opponents, but argued vehemently that things never went too far.

"Adam, what is too far?", Fashanu sternly rebukes the interviewer. "There was no such thing as too far, Adam. Do I mean that somebody died? Nobody died. That's too far. Do I mean that somebody got his pride broken? Yes, maybe. So what? It's part of the game Adam. Come on, it's part of the game my man".

Others were not too convinced though, including Fashanu's team-mate Terry Gibson. "We went across the line in terms of aggression. There probably are a few challenges that players shouldn't have made against players who didn't deserve to be treated in that way". Vinnie Jones' tackle on Gary Stevens was shown to highlight one such moment, an incident which basically finished Stevens' career, with Lineker calling Fashanu's elbow on Gary Mabbutt "repulsive" and "horrible and uncalled for", and the Fashanu-Anderson tunnel bust-up of 1988 also briefly mentioned.

Like Fashanu, Jones defended the aggressive nature of the Crazy Gang, stating that the players had to use such force to simply survive, something which Lineker argued against strongly. Most telling of all though was a comment made by Gibson. "Players that I played against saying that they went to Wimbledon, and the only thing they wanted - they didn't care about the result - they just wanted to come away without an injury. Can you imagine the advantage that gave us?" A very revealing insight into the physical and psychological advantage Wimbledon held over opponents.

Sink or swim

Most fascinating of all, however, was the section of the programme that focussed on what it took to make it as a member of the Crazy Gang. Previously I had read stories about the antics of the players and merely chuckled at such japes, but after hearing two heartfelt confessions from John Scales and Terry Phelan, it soon became apparent that in the Wimbledon dressing room, there was an increasingly thin line between what the kids today call banter, and old-school bullying.

Both Scales and Phelan reveal just how hard it was to join the club at the start of the 1987/88 season and settle in the mad environment of the Crazy Gang inner sanctum. Scales, a sensitive man by nature, admits that he increasingly sort refuge at the pub as a coping mechanism for all the psychological battering he had to endure at the club, had long conversations with his dad because he couldn't cope, and Fashanu openly speaks about the fact that some days he thought Scales was breaking. It certainly gave me a different perspective about the Crazy Gang situation.

Phelan too is honest about his early time at the club, talking of players crying because of bullying, the abnormal nature of the club, and the "dark place" he was in during the opening six months in terms of his emotional and social state of mind. "You either grew a backbone very quickly or dissolved as a man," Jones comments, seemingly without any contrition. Many did in fact never make it at the club, with the role of Downes in being "tough on talent" particularly important.

It may well have been the way the documentary was made, but the accounts of Scales and Phelan, along with various tales including a player being locked in a boot, another tied to the top of a car and driven down the A3, and players being forced to go two days without food, all of a sudden paint a picture of the Crazy Gang that I have to admit I wasn't fully aware of before (although after reading the comments from Bassett and Gibson, you do begin to wonder if half of these things actually happened).

Gould and Howe

When Bassett departed for Watford in 1987, Dennis Wise indicated that most of the squad wanted to leave too, such was the fatherly nature of the boss that had brought them so much success. So replacing the former King was not a straight forward process. Describing himself as the "headmaster in the worst comprehensive school in the United Kingdom," Bobby Gould was handed the daunting prospect of stepping into Bassett's shoes, and at first he had a struggle on his hands.

Gibson joked that Gould did as he was told initially and did not try and change the group too much, and even introduced the concept of "the circle" so that anyone with any grievances could air them in public and the problems would be sorted face-to-face. For a squad of players not adverse to confrontation, Gould's new policy was probably welcomed with open arms (and clenched fists), and in one circle episode, Wise even managed to take on his own boss and crack one of Gould's rib.

One masterstroke of Gould's was to appoint Don Howe as his coach. The admiration felt towards Howe comes across clearly in the documentary, Jones saying that they adored and respected Howe greatly, with Wise waxing lyrical about him. "He's the best coach I have ever worked under. I can say that with no hesitation. He was absolutely fantastic".

Fash and Vinnie

A theme of the programme is the array of individuals that made up the Crazy Gang, but two of the key characters are analysed to a greater extent. John Fashanu, the self-acclaimed leader of the Crazy Gang, ruled the dressing room with an element of fear (in his own words), and although he is described by Jones as "hilarious, but tough", Jones' account of Fash closing the dressing room door and battering a team mate into submission (rumoured to be Robbie Turner) were frightening, although when you read Terry Gibson's version of events you do begin to wonder if Jones was slightly wayward with the truth.

Jones also unsurprisingly revels in his role as a hard man, relating his progression from an angry teenager - his parents split when he was 13/14 - to the midfield "butcher" in the Wimbledon setup. "The worst of Vinnie was not a nice person, the best of Vinnie was the most charming, engaging person you could want to meet," Scales says, with Alan Cork detailing that Jones "couldn't refuse a fight" and would often be seen on a Monday with cuts and bruises.

Jones' background, and that of many others, was painted as another reason for the success of the Crazy Gang, the feeling of belonging to a family key in bringing the various elements together and producing the team spirit that carried Wimbledon so far.

FA Cup glory

Inevitably a lot of time was devoted to the crowning glory of the Crazy Gang - the 1988 FA Cup final against Liverpool. What strikes you is just how big a deal the final was back in the 1980s, with the traditional journey on the team coaches and player interviews beforehand a key part in the excitement of the whole day back in my childhood.

It was also interesting to note the general ill feeling felt towards the Dons, as opposition to their style of play, and the general Liverpool love-in that used to exist, saw many of the journalists and pundits hoping for a Liverpool win, along with predictions of embarrassment, humiliation and thrashings for one of the biggest underdogs to contest an FA Cup final.

A lot has been made of the tunnel antics before the match, with Fashanu claiming he eyeballed Barnes (something Barnes refuted) and the infamous "yidaho" cry yelled by Jones and Fashanu apparently intimidating Liverpool (Andy Thorn and Lawrie Sanchez agree with this theory, again Barnes is reluctant to admit to this). Another oft discussed moment is the Jones tackle on Steve McMahon in the first ten minutes, something Jones says was planned weeks before the final. A tackle that was bad enough in the 1980s, so you can only imagine what would happen if someone did that today.

Sanchez's goal gave Wimbledon something to hold on to, with Beasant's penalty save from John Aldridge the moment at which most identified that this could be the day of the underdog. Most of the stories related to the final have been covered extensively since that May day in 1988, but there was one incident that I was completely unaware of. All I'm going to say is there can't be many FA Cup winning managers who have had a penis thrust towards their face in the post-match celebrations.

Summing up

As a 1980s sports fan this programme was always going to appeal to me. Admittedly I had a couple of gripes; some of the John Motson commentary seems to have been added way after the event, in fact I'm pretty sure that there are two separate recordings for a Fashanu goal away at Newcastle; and the split up of the squad was seen as the end of the rags to riches tale, when in reality the club survived in the top flight until 2000. The hideous MK Dons takeover was brushed over, but in the defence of the programme makers that was not the focus of this documentary, and this was probably not the vehicle to delve into that messy topic.

There were many other snippets that made this documentary enjoyable, regardless of whether you choose to believe everything in it. The quite open hatred between Sanchez and Fashanu, leading the latter to rue Wimbledon's great day, as he had to "hug the bastard" after Sanchez scored the winning goal; the "put it in the mixer" yells; the story of Alan Cork's car being set on fire; chairman Sam Hammam allowing Gould to buy Gibson for £250,000 if the manager could eat twelve sheep testicles; Hammam forcing the players to go and watch opera if they lost by four or more goals; cones being stolen on the A3 for training purposes; Dennis Wise being embarrassed on the team coach after an old episode of Record Breakers was shown to his laughing team mates.

You could do a lot worse things with your time.

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