Rarely does sport throw up rags-to-riches stories to match that of Wimbledon FC in the late 80s and early 90s. And it’s unlikely the feat of the team who became known as the Crazy Gang will ever be repeated.
In the 70s, Wimbledon were a very successful non-league club, and in 1977 the club was promoted to the football league where they would kick around the third and fourth divisions until 1982/83 when they won the fourth division at the start of what would become an epic rise to glory.
They went on to win division three, and two years later were promoted to the top flight. Imagine that. If, in three years’ time, Wrexham have been promoted twice more, it still seems unlikely they would be many people’s favourites in the Championship betting markets.
And so it was with Wimbledon. They were expected to crash and burn in their first season in division two. But their uncompromising style of play combined with an immense amount of confidence throughout the team saw them finish 12th before going in to win promotion in just their second season at that level.
And more was to come. Wimbledon were a club that revelled in its reputation as a team that didn’t belong in the top division of English football. With aggressive, combative players such as John Fashanu and Vinnie Jones, the team didn’t care that fans and opponents criticised their style of play.
It certainly wasn’t football for the purists. Wimbledon typified the long ball and were happy to scrap with anybody and use dirty tricks to gain a competitive edge. It may not have been pretty, but it was effective.
Their first season in division one saw Wimbledon finish 6th, which remains their best ever finish in the top division. The following year, they finished 7th but made it to the FA Cup Final. They would face Liverpool in the final who had just been crowned league champions and were strongly fancied to complete the double.
But the Crazy Gang had other ideas. They got stuck into Liverpool, realising this chance may never come around again. And eight minutes before half time, a Dennis Wise free kick was headed home by Lawrie Sanchez.
The second half saw a Peter Beardsley goal ruled out for Liverpool and the first ever penalty save in an FA Cup Final as Wimbledon goalkeeper Dave Beasant denied Irish international John Aldridge.
They beat the league champions 1-0 and the celebrations kicked off. It was the crowning glory for a team that just kept defying the odds.
A few years later, Wimbledon were one of the founding members of the new Premier League. This was perhaps the beginning of the inevitable end for the unfashionable club from South London. As money came into the game and the quality of players in the league was raised ever higher, more established teams came to the fore. So much so that outside of the big six, only two clubs have ever won the Premier League. And both Blackburn and Leicester had wealthy owners.
Wimbledon’s story was one of fighting their way to the top, not buying it. It’s an achievement that will probably never be repeated – but will always have a place in the history of English football.