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When Wimbledon couldn't be divided

ESPN staff
November 29, 2012
Solidarity: Eric Young, Lawrie Sanchez, Dave Beasant and Terry Phelen celebrate winning the 1988 FA Cup final at Wembley © Getty Images
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Division ran through Wimbledon in the early 2000s when the town's team were moved to Milton Keynes but a steadfast fan base refused to follow, famously setting up their own non-League team, AFC Wimbledon. Wounds have to an extent healed since that dastardly, drawn-out act from 2002-2004 as AFC have gained Football League status but they could well be re-opened when the stickers play the twisters, MK Dons, this Sunday in the FA Cup second round.

With that in mind ESPN harks back to the scene of Wimbledon FC's most glorious purple patch, the 1987/88 run to the FA Cup final and ultimate victory over English champions Liverpool, to unpick what made the Dons such a united front.

May 14, 1988 was the Crazy Gang's finest hour and they lived up to their reputation even before kick-off by shouting and screaming in the Wembley tunnel, their charged-up presence making it clear to Liverpool that the Dons would have to be wrestled to the floor before conceding their first shot at a major trophy.

They didn't relent once referee Brian Hill blew his whistle either and their efforts reached an ear-banging crescendo when Reds striker John Aldridge stepped up for a second-half penalty to try and cancel out Lawrie Sanchez's looping header just before half-time. Defender Andy Thorn was later unapologetic about his side's methods in putting Aldridge off, saying: "When he ran up to take the spot-kick we were telling him 'you are going to miss it' and he didn't score did he?"

Neither Wimbledon's players' words, nor their football, were to many people's liking outside of SW19 but everyone who watched that final had nothing but admiration for their endeavour in shackling and shutting down a Liverpool side containing the likes of Peter Beardsley, John Barnes and Ray Houghton.

But two months earlier and just before half-time in their sixth round tie with Watford at Plough Lane, that diehard will to win was nowhere to be seen as the Dons, seventh in the league, trailed the Hornets by a sloppy Malcolm Allen goal and were poised to implode. Which they achieved when Brian Gayle, instrumental in helping Wimbledon reach the sixth round but at fault for Allen's tap-in, struck Allen in the throat when the players tangled.

Referee Neil Midgley drew a straight red card and Gayle wasn't to be seen again for the remainder of Wimbledon's cup run, manager Bobby Gould seemingly punishing the defender for letting his team down.

Gayle would travel to Wembley with the squad, as a spectator, and celebrated as much as his conscience would allow but regret at his rash actions overshadowed the day.

"Words cannot describe my feelings," said Gayle on the day. "I was as pleased as anybody for the lads - but personally it was a black day. You would think I might have been allowed a little taste of Wembley. I thought I'd paid my debt for being sent off and I have no excuse for that. But obviously I hadn't."

At the time, Gayle's left hook was exactly the tonic Wimbledon needed. Gould brought on Eric Young for Alan Cork at the beginning of the second half, pushed his formation into attack mode and the effect was immediate. It took three minutes for Young to score the equaliser, rising to meet a Dennis Wise free kick from wide on the left.

Having delivered the required adrenalin shot to his side, Gould then had to calm his team down and implored them to focus on defending as striker Luther Blissett was a constant menace in front of Dave Beasant's goal. The Dons held fast and were determined to reach the semi-finals for the first time in their history, having lost in the last eight to Tottenham Hotspur in the 1986/87 FA Cup.

The Dons' top three FA Cup heroes

Dennis Wise (centre) is sandwiched between Lawrie Sanchez and John Fashanu on the Dons' return to Wembley for the 1988 Charity Shield © PA Photos
  • John Fashanu
  • Fash was the Dons' record signing and although he wasn't the hero in the final, that honour going to Lawrie Sanchez, he was the only true diamond in Bobby Gould's rough and ready starting XI. As well as scoring in both the sixth round and the semi-final he bagged 14 goals in the league that season, and in 1990/91 he was the division's top scorer with 20.
  • Dave Beasant
  • Captains step in when their team need them most. Beasant did just that in defending his side's 1-0 lead by becoming the first goalkeeper to save a penalty in an FA Cup final at Wembley. John Aldridge's unsuccessful strike, (to Beasant's left) was his first penalty miss in a Liverpool shirt.
  • Dennis Wise
  • The little man would go on to captain Chelsea but it was at Wimbledon where he forged his reputation and by doing a job on John Barnes in the final he allowed his back four to concentrate on managing Peter Beardsley. Wise's dead-ball work created both Eric Young's headed goal against Watford and Fashanu's penalty against Luton Town before scoring the goal that took them to Wembley.

Their moment came in the 73rd minute via their own formidable front-man John Fashanu, who had arrived at Plough Lane two years before from Millwall for a price of £120,000.

Presenting Gladiators was still four years away but 'Fash' perfectly resembled the aggressive contestants he would go on to interview as he bore down on Tony Coton's goal and placed the ball firmly past him to set up a semi-final clash with Luton Town.

Hatters fans unfurled a banner before the game reading 'grit and flair can get us there', but it was Wimbledon who wombled on to Wembley in a 2-1 victory in which they came from behind once more. Although Mick Harford gave his side the lead at White Hart Lane, Fashanu converted a Terry Gibson-earned penalty and Wise won it by sliding in at the far post to meet a sweetly struck Alan Cork cross.

With an esprit de corps firmly established, cutting the English champions down to size was not as mammoth a task as the contemporary football press made out. Gould knew it too and despite Kenny Dalglish's Liverpool side resembling a suave limousine compared to his team's juggernaut, he fancied his chances.

He said: "We will continue to play the power football that has given this wonderful club some success. And do you know why? Because teams don't like playing against it. And if they don't like it we are going to continue stuffing it down their throats."

Thus the Dons marched on Wembley with well-placed confidence and thanks to Wise doing a number on two-time Footballer of the Year Barnes, Sanchez's magic head and heroics from Beasant between the sticks, the cup went to the team who, as the Daily Express remarked at the time, more resembled 'Guerilla Fighters' than a 'Crazy Gang.'

What happened next?
Wimbledon were the worst paid side in the First Division and chairman Sam Hammam was prepared to see his team split up following the triumph.

"With the size or our club you have to look at any reasonable offer for anyone," he said. "We can't pay anyone what they deserve, only what we can afford."

Soon enough Beasant completed a £750,000 transfer to Newcastle United making him the most expensive goalkeeper in English football.

Wimbledon weren't allowed to take their place in the European Cup Winners' Cup because of a ban on English teams from competing following the 1985 Heysel disaster and Liverpool then beat them 2-1 them in August's Charity Shield.

Yet Wimbledon still finished 12th in the 1988/89 First Division, just five places down on their seventh place the year before, and then eighth the season after that. But it wasn't enough to keep Gould in a job and he was sacked in 1990 and replaced with Ray Harford.

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