For fans over a certain age, mention Wimbledon and the infamous ‘Crazy Gang’ will soon work its way into the conversation. This infamous group of players and their antics fostered and instilled a rebellious attitude all around the club. The team was not only crazy by name, but the whole period was crazy by nature.
To give it context, Wimbledon spent most of their history floundering in non-league. All this changed in the late 1970s, when Wimbledon was elected into the football league in place of Workington. This was the start of an extraordinary couple of decades.
Naturally, it was up and down to begin with, coupled with a proposal to relocate to Milton Keynes. This was a non-starter, but it would become a reoccurring theme. Shortly after, their chairman walked, out leaving for Crystal Palace and taking their manager Dario Gradi with him. More despair followed when sadly, injured defender Dave Clement fell into a deep depression whilst battling a serious and potential career-ending leg break and committed suicide.
Whilst relegation battles followed, by the mid-’80s Wimbledon had settled into league life. They sealed promotion to the First Division only nine years after first being elected to the Football League. Their short rise to the top made them relegation favourites. Surprisingly they went on to finish a respectable sixth.
A massive upset then followed in 1988, when they beat the favourites, Liverpool, to clinch the FA Cup. Winning the FA Cup should have meant competing in the UEFA Cup Winners Cup. However, English teams had been banned from playing in European competitions for five years, due to the Heysel stadium disaster. The tragedy happened when surging Liverpool fans caused a wall to collapse on Juventus supporters, killing and injuring many of them.
Whilst Wimbledon fans didn’t get to enjoy European competition, the good times did continue, with the Womble’s more than holding their own in the First Division. Again more talk of a new stadium followed; this time in their own borough, but this fell through. To make matters worse, new ground regulations were brought in and theirs didn’t meet the required standards. To top it off it was declared beyond redevelopment. Instead, Wimbledon entered a ground share with non-other than Crystal Palace, who were still owned by their former chairman Ron Noades.
Wimbledon continued to do well throughout most of the ’90s, despite having little money. This was largely down to the infamous ‘Crazy Gang’. It was their ethos that had seen them rise to the First Division and kept them there. They were aptly named when commentator John Motson described the FA Cup win over Liverpool as “the Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club”. From this moment on the name stuck. In reality, the culture had been in full swing for several years. Overly ‘macho and boisterous’ behaviour amongst the players and staff had become the norm, sparking a momentum that was instigated by Wally Downes and spear-headed by the strong personalities of John Fashanu and Vinnie Jones, amongst others.
During training practical jokes were commonly played on each other, this included being driven round strapped to the roof of a car and clothes being torn to shreds. Even the bus driver allegedly had a cardboard box placed over his head whilst driving down the motorway. In recent years, many interviews with former players and staff at the club have stated it went too far. Some of the antics allegedly bordered on ‘harassment, abuse, and bullying’. The club, however, viewed it as ‘character building’. Whatever the situation was, it did create a type of camaraderie and closeness which was behind the success of the club, even if it was somewhat unconventional.
To match the players’ boisterous behaviour and capitalising on it, the ground became an extremely difficult place to play at. In their own changing room the music was often blaring out whilst they acted in a loutish and intimidating way. To top it off, the away changing rooms were rarely cleaned, and would either be too cold or too hot. To further irritate the away team, the owner routinely replaced the sugar with salt, which made for a bitter half-time refreshment. The tunnel itself usually didn’t have a light on either. All this skulduggery both on and off the pitch was an uncomfortable experience all round.
The playing style was a huge talking point. Described as ‘aggressive and intimidating,’ along with ‘basic and unprofessional’. Reckless tackles and strong aerial challenges dominated their game. Ironically, it was a style that remained unchanged, helping them climb from the fourth division to the first in just four years. Whilst unconventional and certainly not sophisticated, it got them where they could have only dreamed of previously. High profile footballers routinely took a dislike to it and got their gripes up, with Gary Lineker stating “the best way to watch Wimbledon is on Ceefax”.
The interesting parallel to all this is that the Crazy Gang came at the height of hooligan culture and in a strange paradox, fans were causing havoc off the pitch. Wimbledon seemed to be the one team that was determined to cause havoc on it. Completely embodying the culture that surrounded football at the time.
As time past Wimbledon’s style did change, becoming more sophisticated. Whilst the club continued to capitalise off the Crazy Gang persona and incorporating it into their marketing, the notoriety of the gang had started to wear off. Added to the fact that it was based around certain players who were no longer at the club, their reputation was fast diminishing.
Wimbledon did manage to stay in top-flight football for 14 years. Where other teams had financial viability, Wimbledon had utilised and relied on the psychological reputation of the ‘Crazy Gang’ to succeed. Unfortunately, this sort of luck tends to run out eventually and that came in 2000 when relegation hit. Ironically 12 years to the day they beat Liverpool in the FA Cup, by which point the ‘Crazy Gang’ mentality had all but disappeared.
This was the start of a downward spiral, and despite unrest amongst fans, once again the club announced its intention to relocate to Milton Keynes. Approval from the FA meant the move could go ahead but this angered fans. As a result, they set about creating a new club, ’AFC Wimbledon’. Almost overnight the majority of fans switched to supporting the newly created club. By 2003, Wimbledon attendances had plummeted and the club entered administration. Whilst they did make the switch to their new ground in Milton Keynes they only played one season as Wimbledon FC, finishing bottom of the league, before being bought out and re-named MK Dons.
The Crazy Gang legacy does live on. The initial success has meant a number of clubs that have tried to emulate the playing style, but with little success. What started as a few jokes gone too far, ended up creating a full-blown culture. The whole encompassment of the ‘the Crazy Gang’ sprinkled with a little bit of luck essentially made it a phenomenon. Chances are we won’t see another club do what Wimbledon did, and in the style they did it in.
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