Wombles are organised, work as a team
Wombles are tidy and Wombles are clean
Underground, overground, Wombling free
The Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we
(â€œThe Wombling Songâ€ â€“ The Wombles)
1974 in Englandâ€¦an era of It Ainâ€™t Half Hot Mum, Kojak and Porridge. Flares are still a fashion statement, preferably paired with a shirt undone to the navel and gold medallion. Bowie is telling us â€œRebel, Rebelâ€ while an unknown band from Sweden enter the Eurovision Song Contest with a song entitled Waterloo. Meanwhile, the British charts see a surprising single get to number 4 â€“ â€œThe Wombling Songâ€ by the Wombles.
For those blissfully unaware of the Wombles and who they might be, I can divulge that they were not a great British band that you just havenâ€™t heard of. The Wombles were a set of characters based on a 1968 book that the BBC turned into a childrenâ€™s programme in 1973 who lived underground, collecting and recycling human rubbish. With a catchy theme song written by Mike Batt as the introduction, the lovable, big-nosed creatures were actually ahead of their time in terms of environmental awareness. The programme became a cultural phenomenon, leading to the release of the theme song in 1974 as â€œThe Wombling Songâ€ and subsequent appearance on Top of the Pops as live-size Wombles played guitars and drums in front of a somewhat confused teenage audience who had come hoping to see David Essex.
So why am I talking about the Wombles in a football article? Well, the Wombles lived and worked on Wimbledon Common â€“ a real park located in the South West of London, near the village of Wimbledon. Until this time, the name Wimbledon was synonymous with tennis but now suddenly the name Wimbledon conjured up images of both strawberries and cream at the All England club and those catchy recycling creatures. Wimbledon had been given a new lease of life in the public consciousness.
What wasnâ€™t so much in the public consciousness in those days was a small football stadium located between Wimbledon and Tooting named Plough Lane. In a built-up area, this ground was home to a bunch of part-timers who played as Wimbledon FC. Until 1964, Wimbledon FC had been purely an amateur team, before the decision was then made to go semi-professional and enter the Southern League. This was a league that sat just below the formal Football League divisions, which back then consisted simply of Divisions One, Two, Three and Four. Successful Southern League teams did have the opportunity to get into Division Four but not by the modern route of automatic promotion. Instead, there existed a convoluted re-election process that saw the worst placed teams in Division Four reapplying for their place while successful non-league teams also applied. In something from the Victorian era, clubs had to present their cases at an Annual General Meeting of the League where elderly gentlemen with huge moustaches decided upon their fates.
At the start of the 1974/75 season, Wimbledon FC were an established Southern League side, having finished the previous year mid-table in 12th position while Dartford won the division. A season of turmoil and changes had seen Wimbledon flirt with relegation at one stage before turning their season around. Things had got so bad that several thousand pounds were needed to pay off a bank overdraft due at the end of May 1974 or else the club would go under. The Supportersâ€™ Club ended up having to raise half the debt themselves just to keep Wimbledon afloat. A new manager had also been brought in â€“ Allen Batsford â€“ whose claim to fame had been managing non-league Walton and Hersham to a 4-0 victory over Brighton in the FA Cup. A Brighton team that was managed by a certain Brian Clough.
Therefore Wimbledon fans entered the 1974/75 season with a certain degree of trepidation given the financial problems and personnel changes. For starters, their squad consisted of just seven players â€“ not an ideal place from which to start a new campaign. Batsford raided his old club and brought over several players, including one by the name of Dave Bassett who would enjoy a long and successful relationship with Wimbledon. But at this stage he was still just an experienced semi-professional defensive midfielder who had played at Hayes, Hendon and St Albans City.
But as with every season for the non-league teams, whatever the league may hold, there was always the dream of FA Cup success. For those who are unaware, although the FA Cup gets most media attention from the Third Round onwards, when the major clubs enter the competition in January, there are many steps that precede this stage. The 1974/75 FA Cup actually started in August 1974 with a preliminary round in which amateur teams played all over England in tiny stadiums with an eye towards future glory. This was followed by the 1st Qualifying Round which saw some higher ranked amateur teams enter the fray, but all still distinctly part-timers. And one of these 144 ties saw Bracknell Town draw a home tie against another set of part-timers from South-West London; Wimbledon FC.
And so onto Saturday, September 17 and Wimbledon travel to nearby Bracknell Town in the FA Cup, cheered on by five coachloads of fans. To their dismay, Bracknell take the lead when the Wimbledon keeper loses a cross in the sun. But Wimbledon fight back to record a 3-1 victory and the goalkeeperâ€™s blushes are spared. A goalkeeper who made nearly 600 appearances for Wimbledon, including missing only one game in a run of 449 consecutive matches. A goalkeeper by the name of Richard Guy â€“ but known to all as Dickie Guy. Much more on him later.
The 2nd Qualifying Round took place just three weeks later and this time Wimbledon were given a home tie against Maidenhead Utd, who they dispatched easily 4-0. A further two weeks later and Wimbledon were once again at home, defeating Wokingham Town 2-0, meaning that they were now just one win away from reaching the 1st Round of the FA Cup proper, when professional Division Three and Four teams would join the fun. All they had to do was to travel to Guildford & Dorking and get a victory. Two late goals saw Wimbledon cross the line with a 3-0 win. They were into the â€œFA Cup properâ€.
Now came the chance to get a game against a professional side, perhaps someone local that would attract a large crowd and much needed revenue. However, it was local rivals Tooting and Mitcham who drew the plum tie, hosting nearby Crystal Palace in front of 10,000 paying fans. Wimbledon were given a home tie against fellow part-timers Bath City, who they duly dispatched by a single injury-time goal. The second round again saw Wimbledon miss the professionals and instead get another home tie against fellow Southern League Kettering Town. Nearly 6,000 gathered into Plough Lane to see Wimbledon victorious by two goals to nil. For the first time in their history, Wimbledon FC were entering the third round with the chance to be drawn against anyone, including all the First Division big boys.
In front of a national audience, the live draw for the third round began. With 64 teams in the velvet bag, the first name pulled out was First Division Burnley, who were sitting seventh at the time, just two points behind leaders Ipswich, and unbeaten in their last eight home games. And then the next ball came out and the number was matched to the relevant team â€“ Wimbledon FC. Okay, it wasnâ€™t Liverpool or champions Derby but it was a classic First Division professionals vs non-league part-timers clash. The type of game everyone wants to watch in the third round to see if a famous giant-killing act will follow. It had been over forty years since a non-league team had travelled to a First Division team and come away with a victory.
Only not everyone could watch it. The chairman of Burnley at that time, Bob Lord, was a fierce opponent of televised football, thinking that it kept fans away. In those days the game also would never be shown live â€“ it would have just been highlights later that night â€“ but even that was too much for him to stomach. Unfortunately Lordâ€™s views on televised games was also tainted by comments that he made at a Variety Club dinner in 1974 where he stated that â€œwe have to stand up against a move to get soccer on the cheap by the Jews who run TV.â€ Manny Cussins, who was Jewish and chairman of Leeds United, subsequently said he would walk out of the Elland Road boardroom if Lord visited when Burnley was playing there. The words progressive and Bob Lord would never be mentioned in the same sentence.
As we all know, karma can be a bitch â€“ and so it proved for Mr. Lord. With no cameras present, there only remains a grainy black and white photo showing the moment that Mr. Lordâ€™s beloved Burnley were humbled by a 48th minute Mahon strike. An impressive visiting contingent of fans from South West London witnessed Dickie Guy keep the Clarets at bay with some brilliant saves. Suddenly Wimbledon FC were in the national conversation.
With now just 32 teams remaining all eyes turned to the live fourth round draw. This time, unlike the last round when Wimbledon had been the second team drawn, the fourth round draw saw many ties set up, but no sign of Wimbledon. It got to the stage where 15 of the 16 ties had been drawn â€“ and still no Wimbledon. That meant that only two balls were left in the bag â€“ Wimbledon and someone else. But which other team had not been drawn yet?
The early 1970s had seen a host of different teams win the English League, including Derby, Liverpool and Arsenal. But if you had asked someone at that time to name the dominant side in England, it is likely that most would have agreed on one team â€“ Leeds United. Defending League Champions in the 1974/75 season, they had also been runners-up in 1969/70, 1970/71 and 1971/72. They had won the FA Cup in 1971/72 before again reaching the final in the following year. Internationally, they were runners-up in the 1972/73 Cup Winnerâ€™s Cup, losing by just one goals against the might of AC Milan. They were halfway through a European Cup campaign that would see them reach the final before losing controversially to Bayern Munich. They were the most feared team in the domestic arena.
The season had seen Brian Clough replace Don Revie as manager for the infamous 44 days, before Jimmy Armfield came in to steady the ship. While the team was starting to age, it still contained the likes of Bremner, McQueen, Hunter, Lorimer, Clarke, Jordan and Giles. With their reputation for hardness and winning at all costs and status as league champions they were the team to avoid in knock-out competition draws. And they were the final ball remaining in the bag along with Wimbledon.
Leeds came out first, meaning that Wimbledon were the final team to be drawn. English champions Leeds United at home against non-league Wimbledon. Feelings must have been mixed in South West London â€“ an away tie against Leeds meant a share of gate revenues that Wimbledon could only normally dream off â€“ but it also meant travelling to Elland Road as sacrificial lambs to the slaughter. This was after all a Leeds team that would defeat Barcelona 2-1 at home just over two months later.
Suddenly Wimbledon wasnâ€™t just about tennis and the Wombles. National media went into a frenzy ahead of the game as this fairy-tale clash approached. There was even talk that a consortium might come in and buy the club, installing George Best as player-manager. While that unfortunately did not come to pass, the Wimbledon Chairman was able to take advantage of the attention to sell 19,000 non-voting shares at Â£1 each to pay down some of their Â£35,000 debt.
And so on January 25, 1975, little Wimbledon travelled up to Yorkshire to take on mighty Leeds. Over 46,000 fans piled into Elland Road, along with most of the national media and TV cameras. Wimbledonâ€™s Dave Donaldson and Billy Edwards warmed up, welcoming the break from their full-time jobs as a British Airways employee and police officer respectively. Dickie Guy, a tally clerk at the docks by daytime, would be the one charged with having to keep goal against the inevitable onslaught.
Nowadays a tie such as this would probably result in the top division team resting their first team and fielding a second string side â€“ especially one who were still in the Champions League and fighting for the League. But this is 1975 and the FA Cup is held in very high esteem amongst both players and fans alike. And so Leeds sent out a strong team to face the part-timers â€“ including established internationals for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Charity was obviously not a word in the Leeds lexicon.
Leeds stepped out in their classic all-white strip while Wimbledon were in all-blue. The first half was actually surprisingly uneventful and Wimbledon were astonished to find themselves going into half-time still level and relatively unflustered. One can only imagine what was being said in the next door dressing room and a fired-up Leeds team came out for the second half. The hammer was to be lowered.
A through ball to Welsh international Yorath put him clean through on goal but his shot was wonderfully saved by Guy. Leeds were now flying roared on by the packed Elland Road and Scottish international Lorimer got to the byline for his cross to be acrobatically cut out once again by Guy. Then came the moment for which the game is best remembered.
With just eight minutes remaining on the clock, a short ball from Lorimer reached Eddie Gray cutting in from the wing. As he entered the area, teasing the Wimbledon defender facing him, Dave Bassett came over to help and ended up barging Gray to the ground. The referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Penalty to Leeds!
A penalty to Leeds. As everyone in the country knew, that meant just one thing. Peter â€œHotshotâ€ Lorimer. A man whose goals from outside the area often clocked 90 mph. A man who had once struck a penalty at a recorded 107 mph. A man who would score 19 penalties over his career. Against a part-time dock worker. The Wimbledon dream was surely to end.
The Wimbledon players looked distraught around the area and even Dickie Guy beat the ground in frustration. As the commentator put it:
â€œAnd Dick Guy, the man who has performed heroics this afternoonâ€¦who has saved everything that has been flung at himâ€¦has the most thankless task any goalkeeper in football can haveâ€¦to try to save a penalty by Deadshot Peter Lorimerâ€.
But for whatever reason, Lorimer decided not to go for his usual blast technique but instead to place it low to Guyâ€™s right hand side:
â€œHe saved it! Dick Guy can have the freedom of Wimbledon this weekend. They can make him a freeman of the borough.â€
The dock worker had denied Lorimer. And like a stung animal, Leeds now went into an attacking frenzy over the final few minutes. A scramble from a corner led Guy to again get his body in front of a shot and as the play entered added time, Leeds threw the ball again and again into the Wimbledon area, only to be rebuffed by the centre backs. Added time seemed to go on forever as Leeds came and came again. Mackenzie slipped a beautiful pass through to Giles but Guy rushed out and smothered the shot for a corner. The commentator by now was losing his voice:
â€œGuy at the feet of Giles. We canâ€™t stand anymore excitementâ€.
â€œThe corner, the header! The save! I donâ€™t believe it! This man is not human! And thereâ€™s the whistleâ€
â€œDickie Guy, the dockland tally clerk, who must have his own private genie. What a performance!â€
The highlights were actually shown on TV the following day and, in a nice touch, ITV actually brought Dickie Guy into the studio to watch with them and then interviewed him. With his bread and long hair, he actually looked more like a sociology lecturer rather than a FA Cup hero, as he discussed how the last few frantic minutes had been a blur. He mentioned how he had watched Lorimer penalties and thought he would hit it to his right, which is what happened. Guy genuinely choked up when re-watching the penalty save before confirming that he had only dreamt about saving a Lorimer penalty.
By now the country was enthralled with the Wimbledon story and tickets for the replay were in high demand. People queued all night at Plough Lane to obtain the magic passes and once the ticket booths opened up, all were gone in just 90 minutes. Fans became angry and one ticket tout was chased down the street, having to jump onto a bus to escape. But in the end the weather intervened and a waterlogged pitch meant moving the replay to Selhurst Park and a crowd of 45,000+.
Again in front of the TV cameras, Wimbledon put on a spirited display, eventually going down just 1-0 to a deflected Johnny Giles shot. But the part-timers from South West London had entered FA Cup folklore history and the hearts of the nation. And Dickie Guy became a household name.
Of course, Wimbledon went on to greater glories, coming up into the football league in 1977 and then reaching the First Division in 1986 â€“ a remarkable achievement. And once again the FA Cup yielded their most famous moment as The Crazy Gang bested an imperious Liverpool 1-0 in the 1988 final, with another keeper making a name for himself as Dave Beasant became the first keeper ever to save a penalty in a final.
Leeds went on to reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup before succumbing to Ipswich Town in a third replay â€“ these still being the days of endless replays to settle ties. More importantly, they also reached the European Cup final at the end of the season, losing to Bayern Munich in extremely controversial circumstances and taking it out on the City of Light, leading to a two year ban from Europe as the once great team started ageing and declining.
As for Dickie Guy, he made 19 starts for Wimbledon in the football league before deciding that he wished to remain semi-professional and maintain his career outside of the game. When AFC Wimbledon formed after the move of the initial club to Milton Keynes, Guy was made president to the joy of many supporters. In 2021 he finally received the Freedom of the Borough of Merton, just as the commentator during the Leeds game had foretold.
Finally the London borough could shake off the association with those long-nosed Wombles and be recognised for something else.Â But the Wombles link would never quite vanish – Wimbledon were organised and worked like a team, just like in the Wombling song, and even became nicknamed The Wombles. The connection would always stick.
So next time you watch Vinnie Jones great performance as Bullet-Tooth Tony in â€œSnatchâ€, just remember that the whole Crazy Gang story began way back in 1974/75 with a bunch of part-timers and their 1974/75 cup run. And thatâ€™s not telling porky pies.