It is a warm summer’s day in 1987. Two middle-aged men – one from Lebanon, the other Coventry – sit down for lunch in an exclusive central London restaurant. Bobby Gould is the new manager of Wimbledon FC. His dining companion, businessman Samir ‘Sam’ Hammam, is the club’s owner. Hamamm was first attracted to SW19 by the tennis but quickly turned his attentions to the non-league outfit from the same area. Unfashionable, ugly, unfancied – the Dons are a club with a dozen prefixes. Hamamm’s money had helped propel Wimbledon through the leagues. Indeed, on that sunny afternoon, the two men reflect on the success of the club’s inaugural season in Division One (they had finished sixth, high enough for a place in Europe in today’s money); a remarkable achievement given that the minnows of Plough Lane had been scrapping it out among the blood, mud and thunder of the fourth tier only four years earlier. More remarkable still, in less than 12 months the Crazy Gang – so called thanks to the boisterous, squaddie-style antics of the players (and management) – would rock the establishment yet further by lifting the FA Cup, in the final overcoming the might of 80s powerhouse Liverpool.
“I wanted a striker,” recalls Gould, now 69. “I’d looked at Ian Wright and plenty of others but I thought Terry Gibson was the answer – the perfect man to play off big John Fashanu.
“The only problem was that Man United wanted a quarter of a million pounds for him and Wimbledon had only ever paid £5,000 for a player before. So Sam Hamamm takes me out for lunch one day to a lovely restaurant in London – a Lebanese place it was – and he says to me, ‘if you eat what is about to be put in front of you, you can have your player’. At that point, the waiter comes out and presents me with 12 sheep’s testicles. I soaked them in vinegar, ate the lot and signed Terry Gibson for £250,000.”
The Crazy Gang were football’s Sex Pistols – in fact the club boasted a charge sheet of mischief and mayhem that would make even John Lydon wince. Trainees were locked in car boots. New signings had their clothes shredded or set alight. The club’s bus driver quit when piping hot fish batter was placed on his bald head as he drove along a motorway at 80mph. But behind the chaos was a work ethic few could imagine.
“They trained harder than anyone else, they were so intense,” recalls Gould, who spent a month on trial as a player before his later appointment as manager. “I had been at some wonderful clubs throughout my career and all of a sudden you are at Wimbledon and you’re running through the forest. I had a ball of a time as a player, enjoyed every minute of it. So when I went in as a manager, I was a little bit more streetwise if you know what I’m saying. I knew what the basis of the football club was about.”
The story of what happened in the decade or so after FA Cup glory should be familiar to anyone who cares about football. The departure from Plough Lane, relegation and subsequent relocation to Milton Keynes, as fairy tale turned nightmare, appeared to have killed the club altogether.
But from the ashes, hope springs eternal.
In an office in North London, three colleagues listen to an interview on Five Live. It’s 2002 and Wimbledon fan Ivor Heller reveals to the nation Dons supporters’ very bold ambition to rebuild their beloved club from scratch.
The trio listening to his impassioned words are Miles Jacobson, and brothers Paul and Oliver Collyer, the brains and inspiration behind the Football (nee Championship) Manager computer game series.
“I just thought it was unforgivable, just wrong on so many levels,” says Miles.
“We heard Ivor talking on Five Live so I called him up and said ‘I want to know how much money you need to set up for the first year and I want to work a sponsorship deal around that’. And basically we put our money where our mouth was. Ivor and I met up, we agreed a deal on a one-page contract, which said we would sponsor them for as long as they wanted us, and if anyone came and offered them more money at any point, we would walk away – and that’s still the deal we have in place now. It’s the longest sponsorship deal in football.”
The club’s re-birth was chaotic and messy. During the summer of 2002, hundreds of pub footballers were descending on Wimbledon Common. The club was to start again at the bottom of the football pyramid, in the Combined Counties League. The only problem was they had no players.
“It was unbelievable,” says Joe Sheerin, who tried out that day and ended up as captain and one of the leading lights at the new club. “It was like no other trial I’ve ever seen. You had 400 people turning up. I don’t know how you can tell how anyone is any good from that. Games were going off all over the place.”
A squad was quickly assembled, so hastily that Football Manager answered an SOS call and lent the team a kit for its first game after the new strip failed to turn up in time. But in a reincarnation of the Crazy Gang’s charge up the divisions, AFC were anything but shambolic, winning league after league and enjoying a two-and-a-half year unbeaten run in the process. Against all odds, league status was achieved – and there was even a cup victory over ‘the franchise’ thrown in for good measure. Today, the club looks more secure than ever – built on dedication and love, not just pounds and pence – with moves afoot to return home to Plough Lane.
“Football is nothing without fans,” said Jock Stein – a truism picked up on by the current anti-modern football movement.
And AFC’s story of supporters taking a stand appears to have inspired others.
FC United of Manchester, formed in 2005 as a response to the takeover of Manchester United by Malcolm Glazer (using cash borrowed against the club), is another fan-owned entity in rapid ascendancy.
Meanwhile, fans of Portsmouth, FA Cup winners in 2008 but now competing against the likes of Accrington Stanley and Dagenham and Redbridge, have seen their club slide into administration twice and suffer three relegations in five years. But now the Pompey Supporters Trust owns the club, which is in much ruder health and challenging for promotion out of League Two.
Exeter fans rescued the Grecians in similar fashion, the Swansea faithful own 20% of their club, while the supporter-led takeover at Wrexham, the third oldest professional club in the world, is another example of what can be achieved when those who care about their team come together.
“We are very, very proud to not just be on the club shirt but to be part of the club,” says Jacobson of AFC Wimbledon.
“I am a shareholder in the same way all Wimbledon fans are shareholders. When we go to games there, we’ll be in the boardroom but we’ll be behind the bar serving people drinks. Everyone chips in; it’s a proper, proper football club. We know everyone there and they are family.”
In Milton Keynes, MK Dons fans are enjoying life in the Championship – and they sense that time has healed some of the raw wounds caused by the club’s inception.
“It was tough to start with because we weren’t a well-liked club,” says Rex Burton, Vice Chairman of MK Dons Supporters Association. “That’s a thing of the past now. The crowds are going up and the club is an integral part of the community. An awful lot of the people who go to MK now probably know very little of what happened in the beginning. The club is moving in the right direction.”
All of this begs the question: has something really great sprung from something so wrong? Milton Keynes has its own football club, a football club which is desperate to embed itself in its community. Its birth may have been awkward and, to Wimbledon fans, downright insensitive. But the club is, after a turbulent period, on an upward trajectory, attracting bigger gates, moving up through the leagues and seemingly no longer cast as the pantomime villains.
Meanwhile, in South West London, something even more remarkable has happened. A club thought doomed has risen from the dead to become, perhaps, even more special than it ever had been.
They may never toast FA Cup glory again – although only a fool would bet against it – but the supporters have enjoyed a far greater achievement in rebuilding from nothing, in standing up to the greed that consumes modern football, and in creating a model for the future that relies on goodwill and hard work, not a billionaire with dubious intentions.
Perhaps, more than all of that, the club serves as a timely reminder that football is supposed to be a place for enjoyment – not politics, profile-building or the rich getting richer.
Says Jacobson: “I don’t like the way that it happened, but I do think out of negative sometimes silver linings come along, and this was definitely that. There was a lot of hard work from a lot of people – it’s not as if it was there on a plate for them. Hopefully they will get to move home properly in the next couple of years, I really hope that comes through for them. But something great has come from all of this – it’s not just good.
“The AFC Wimbledon story is great.”