Last time out we had a look at some of the limited number of clubs who made it into the league via the archaic election process that used to exist. Whilst many of the sides we looked at who came into the league in the 1960s and 1970s did reasonably well, the only one we considered who went on to lift a major trophy was Oxford United who won the Milk (League) Cup in 1986.
Today we will have a look at the last two clubs to be elected to the Football League and consider the progress they made which in each case culminated with FA Cup success at Wembley.
The rise of Wimbledon FC has been well-documented over the years but is well worth revisiting here. Formed in 1889, Wimbledon was for almost ninety years known as a good, solid non-league team with a loyal if reasonably select band of supporters. Playing at the 15,000 capacity Plough Lane Stadium, the club played in a variety of non-league competitions before settling into the Isthmian League where they were champions six times, including a three-in-a-row achievement in the mid-sixties. This brought about a move to the Southern League, then largely recognised as the premier non-league competition.
The 1970s saw Wimbledon become famous for their FA Cup exploits in which the fourth round was reached in 1975. The third round saw Wimbledon drawn away to top-flight Burnley and prevail by the only goal of the game. If that was an impressive feat, then what was to happen next was off the charts.
Drawn away again to reigning First Division champions Leeds United, Wimbledon were not expected to do much more than try and keep the scoreline respectable, but instead ended up pushing the champions all the way. Rising to the occasion at Elland Road, Wimbledon fought a rearguard campaign throughout the ninety minutes, with goalkeeper, Dickie Guy, in imperious form, even saving a Peter Lorimer penalty. Only a late own goal in the replay in front of 40,000 spectators at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park ground saw Leeds finally scramble through to the fifth round.
Duplicating the Isthmian League ‘treble’ of a decade or so earlier, Wimbledon then proceeded to win the Southern League three times in a row between 1975 and 1977, and this success, coupled with another FA Cup run in 1977 resulted in the club being voted into the league at the expense of Workington.
Although Wimbledon had stood for election in each of the Southern League title-winning years of 1975 and 1976, the club had been unable to win more than a handful of votes each time. This was because each year any number of non-league clubs could stand for election, and so the votes amongst them would invariably get split. In 1977, however, the Football League decreed they would only accept applications from a maximum of two non-league clubs, and as champions of the Southern League Wimbledon were naturally one of these sides.
With manager Allen Batsford in charge, Wimbledon started life as a league club steadily and finished mid-table in their inaugural season. When Batsford decided to step down, he was replaced by Dario Gradi and Wimbledon then embarked on something of a somewhat yo-yo existence with two promotions and two relegations in the next four seasons. Finally, in 1982-83 Wimbledon got it right and instead of the Fourth division title win that season being followed by automatic relegation the next, promotion to the Second was achieved.
By now the club was being led by former player, Dave “Harry” Bassett and the groundwork of what was to become the “Crazy Gang” was being installed and honed. Playing a method of direct football, Bassett’s teams were not especially pleasing on the eye, but they were effective with every second ball being fought and scrapped for and the percentages game being utilised. The higher status of the second flight proved no barrier to Wimbledon, and after a single campaign of consolidation, a further promotion to the First Division was achieved in 1986, thus meaning the club had progressed from non-league to the top flight in less than a decade.
In matching Swansea City’s record of three promotions in four seasons, Wimbledon had made history for the fastest climb to the top division from the basement in the history of the game. It was not expected to last, though, and a quick return down the leagues was predicted. However, 1986-87 was to be the first season of 14 years sitting at the top table of league football for the Dons.
Bassett moved on at the end of Wimbledon’s first season in the First Division, when the club finished in a remarkable sixth place and reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. He was replaced by former Coventry City manager, Bobby Gould, who appointed Don Howe as his assistant. Together they would lead Wimbledon to the greatest day in the club’s history.
In 1987-88, Liverpool were all-conquering, had won the league by nine points whilst playing some sublime football along the way. When they reached the FA Cup Final it was widely expected that they would blow their opponents away and walk their way to a second “Double” in just three seasons. Somebody forgot to send the script to Plough Lane, though, and in one of the greatest shocks in recent history, Wimbledon prevailed by the only goal of the game.
As Wimbledon cavorted around Wembley with the trophy in front of 98,000 supporters, onlookers were left to reflect upon what had been a remarkable journey. Only the Heysel ban prevented Wimbledon from taking their rather, ah, unique interpretation of football in Europe on at least one and probably two occasions, and players such as John Fashanu, Vinnie Jones, Dave Beasant and Dennis Wise went on to have long and illustrious careers both on and off the field.
Most of the next dozen years or so were spent around the mid-table echelons of the top flight, and although no more trophies were won, a couple of semi-finals were reached and Wimbledon regularly upset the more established and bigger clubs. In 1991, the club moved out of Plough Lane and started renting Selhurst Park, due to the ramifications of the Taylor Report that deemed Plough Lane unsuitable for First Division football.
In 2000, time finally ran out for the club as far as top-level football went, and they were relegated 12 years to the day after the 1988 FA Cup Final success against Liverpool. The club fell into financial difficulties which resulted in falling into administration and when Wimbledon was given permission to relocate to Milton Keynes in 2002 the writing was on the wall.
Wimbledon FC officially ceased to exist in 2004 when the club became a new entity and renamed itself Milton Keynes. A supporter-led new club was formed in 2002 and after starting near the bottom of the non-league pyramid now plays League One football under the banner of AFC Wimbledon, in a brand new stadium on Plough Lane.
A year after Wimbledon’s election to the league in 1977, Wigan Athletic, as Northern Premier League Champions stood for election and went toe-to-toe with Southport of the Fourth Division for the final spot in the league. After an initial tied ballot, Wigan got the nod from the league’s chairmen and so took their place in the Fourth Division for the 1978-79 season.
Unlike Wimbledon, Wigan didn’t exactly set the football league alight and it was to be 25 years after their 1978 ascension before they would make it as far as the second flight. In 2003, the club was promoted to the First Division as champions of League One, under the astute leadership of Paul Jewell. By now the club had been purchased by the owner of JJB Sports, local millionaire and businessman, Dave Whelan, and the club had not long since moved out of their Springfield Park home into a new designer stadium.
A second promotion under Jewell followed in 2005 and so, after 27 years as a league club, Wigan Athletic found themselves brushing shoulders with the elite of English football for the first time. As with Wimbledon before them, Wigan were expected to struggle in the Premier League, but just like The Dons, Wigan would go on to exceed all expectations for a relatively-prolonged period. Eight seasons of elite-level football followed with Jewell leaving and being replaced by first his assistant, Chris Hutchins, then Steve Bruce and, finally, Roberto Martinez.
The side from Greater Manchester made it to their first-ever major trophy final when the 2006 League Cup Final was reached and the same season saw Wigan’s highest-ever league position when 10th spot in the Premier League was secured.
Under Martinez, the club embarked upon a memorable FA Cup run in the 2012-13 season when, despite battling relegation, the final and a showdown with Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City was reached. City went into the game as overwhelming favourites, but in shades of Wimbledon’s victory over Liverpool some 25 years earlier, Wigan were to pull off a memorable single-goal victory. Unfortunately for the Latics, relegation was indeed confirmed the following week and so despite qualifying for European football, Wigan made history as the first club to win the FA Cup and get relegated in the same season.
The years since 2013 have been mixed for the club with the club bouncing between the Championship and League One. A spell in administration has also been endured as well as the Whelan family selling the club.
To wrap up this short-lived series, we will take a quick look at the fate of the two clubs replaced by Wimbledon and Wigan Athletic as a result of the voting process.
In 1977, Workington Town were voted out of the league after a relatively short period of twenty-seven years as a league club. Initially placed into the Northern Premier League, Workington never recovered from losing its league status and has never remotely threatened to regain it. Unlike other clubs voted out of the league, however, the club has continued to exist in its original form and currently plays in the Northern Premier League Division One North West, the eighth tier of English football, in front of a few hundred hardy souls.
Likewise, Southport, who were replaced in the league by Wigan in 1978, have continued to exist outside the Football League without ever showing any real signs that a return was imminent at any point. In the main, the club has moved up and down between the National League and the National League North divisions and still plays at its old HAIG Avenue ground.