The Greatest Story in Football, Twice – Part One
When I was about 5, my father took me to see a football game. We stood for two hours on cold damp terraces, surrounded by people yelling at the top of the voices at a bunch of overweight shaggy amateurs kicking a leather ball in what at first seemed to be a totally uncoordinated way. The opponents seemed remarkable unfazed by the shouts of “worry him” coming from my granddad certainly more unfazed than me. I had the impression at the end of the game that we had lost. This was because as we all herded towards a large set of blue gates, everyone was complaining, “bleedin awful” “waste a money” “could ave stayed in and watched the wrestling” I thinks its fair to say, I loved every minute of it.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I was watching a football club that was about to write one of the greatest stories in English football…twice. The team was Wimbledon FC, a part time club in the Southern Premier Division, the top league for amateurs and one below the ivory towers of the football league division four, as it was then known. The story is one that will be told again and again, a story of sheer determination over ability, a story of greed and corruption and most of all a story of hope.
In 1977, after three years of trying and after becoming perhaps the greatest cup giant killers of all time, the first amateur side to beat a first division team away, Wimbledon FC were elected to the league division 4. At last my father and grandfather could watch league football, my grandfather after 50 years of waiting. The first few years of professional football were a roller-coaster, but great times were had. Wimbledon’s ground, Plough Lane was shabby and old but felt like a well worn shoe, serving its purpose well and still with a little more life in it. When money allowed we would get a seat in the south stand, a wooden fire trap yet full of character. Sometimes, on birthdays we would watch the game from the North Stand, modern and with plastic seats, it gave us an air of superiority.
Beginning in 1982 a remarkable thing happened, Wimbledon started to rise through the divisions. After yo-yo-ing from 4th to 3rd several times they shot through to the second, caught their breathe for one season an then quite unbelievably they were in the first division. Plough Lane, host for teams such as Yovil and Kettering a few years before was now welcoming Manchester United and Liverpool. It all seemed a little surreal to be honest. It may have been John Barnes and Peter Beardsley out on the turf but to us it was just another game. Except of course Plough Lane was too small for the traveling supporters meaning lots of them found themselves in amongst us. That first season in the top league, against all odds we finished 6th. A mere 9 years after getting league status.
Just when we thought Wimbledon had no more surprises for us, they caught us all with the greatest surprise of all. In May 1988 in front of an estimated television audience of 1 billion people they won the biggest prize in domestic football, the FA Cup. They had beaten perhaps the greatest football team of the 80’s to do it, Liverpool. It wasn’t a pretty game, in places it was ugly but it was the fitting finale to the greatest rise in domestic football history and perhaps its greatest story.
Just over a decade later, that team, its history and its fans had gone. The demise had probably started when Wimbledon moved out of their ground to share a soulless stadium with Crystal Palace. It was certainly accelerated by the creation of the premier league and it was finally cemented by a number of suited business men with no understanding of football. Within that I include the three man commission of the football association who, graduating from the New Labour school of spin, leaked a simple press release stating that they were allowing Wimbledon FC to be relocated to Milton Keynes 70 miles to the north. On the 28th May 2002, whilst the footballing nation awaited news of David Beckham’s metatarsal, Wimbledon FC died.