LONDON (Reuters) - “We were the Cinderellas of the FA Cup,” says Bobby Gould, recalling Wimbledon’s surprise victory over Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final.
The long-ball tactics and uncompromising approach of the self-styled Crazy Gang did not endear them to purists but, as the 20th anniversary of that triumph approaches, Wimbledon’s story seems fairy-tale stuff.
On May 14, 1988, 11 years after entering the Football League, a Wimbledon side who had just completed their second top-flight campaign, overcame Kenny Dalglish’s league champions 1-0 thanks to Lawrie Sanchez’s first-half header and Dave Beasant’s penalty save from John Aldridge in the second period.
The key, according to then manager Gould, was a unique style which he and assistant Don Howe had inherited from predecessor Dave Bassett — “When we went there we didn’t tell them how they were going to play, they told us” — and which featured a pivotal threat from set-pieces.
“For the winning goal against Liverpool, Wisey (Dennis Wise) curls it in, Sanchez gets a near-post header and all you can see is red shirts...they couldn’t defend it,” Gould said in a telephone interview.
“It might sound silly, but 20 years on Brazil are copying Wimbledon with the way that they put curled balls into the near post, from the right side with the left foot and vice versa,” continued Gould, who recently concluded a second campaign assisting his son Jonathan, a former Celtic and Scotland goalkeeper, in coaching New Zealand club Hawke’s Bay United.
“Everybody is copying us now — even the Manchester Uniteds. Most teams score a lot of goals from dead balls.”
Wimbledon were a team defined by their mental toughness, Gould said. “They were all leaders — Beasant, (Alan) Cork, Sanchez, (John) Fashanu, (Vinnie) Jones. We were a force to be reckoned with and we believed in the style that we played.”
Some of their methods tended towards the controversial, as was evident in the build-up to the final.
Gould, 61, tells how he “slipped the groundsman a few bob” to secure an extra Wembley training session. He also remembers putting the dressing-room clock back two minutes to leave Liverpool waiting in the Wembley tunnel before kick-off.
“The FA have got their rules but you can tweak them a little bit, just don’t tell anyone till 20 years later.”
He also recalled his remedy for the players’ night-before nerves. “Don and I looked at each other and he said: ‘Come on, let’s relax them’. I said: ‘There’s 100 quid, get down the Bunch of Grapes and have a lager. Don’t have a pint, just half-pints’.
“As I was sending them all down, Dennis Wise, Brian Gayle and Vinnie Jones were coming sheepishly up the back garden. They’d been down the Bunch of Grapes so I said: ‘I’ve got bad news for you — I’ve just sent the other lads down there with 100 quid and you’ve spent your own money’. They scampered back as quickly as they possibly could.”
Yet Gould maintains the side were “ultra-professional” and cites the hour Wise and Cork spent hitting Aldridge-style spot kicks at Beasant on the eve of the final.
“They would put the ball on the spot, go up, take the two steps, check, sidefoot, go to Beasant’s left. They rehearsed it time after time after time. And what happens in the second half? The tackle by Clive Goodyear on John Barnes and penalty given — it wasn’t a penalty, I still say that to this day — but Aldridge went up, check, sidefoot, Dave goes left, penalty saved, job done.”
It was the first penalty save in a Wembley Cup final.
“What nobody realises is that afterwards that team was sold for ten million pounds. Look at them today and how successful they have been,” added Gould, who also collected a Cup winner’s medal as a non-playing substitute with West Ham in 1975.
Sanchez and Wise both went on to inspire Cup shocks as managers, the former taking third-tier Wycombe to a 2001 semi-final (as well as guiding Northern Ireland to a 2006 World Cup qualifying win over England), the latter leading Millwall, then of the Championship, to the final in 2004.
Midfielder Jones graduated from the role of on-field pantomime villain to playing the tough guy in Hollywood films.
Wimbledon continued defying the odds until relegation from the Premier League in 2000, after which the club’s identity soon changed irrevocably with a controversial move in 2003 to Milton Keynes, more than 95 kms from their original home in south London.
By the following season the transplanted club were operating under the new name of MK Dons.
Curiously, the 20th anniversary of Wimbledon’s FA Cup triumph has brought success for both MK Dons — promoted from the fourth division as champions — and AFC Wimbledon, the club established by fans unhappy with the relocation out of London.
The ‘new Wimbledon’ have won promotion to the sixth tier of the English football pyramid — their third promotion in five seasons — to move just two steps away from the Football League.
The spirit of 1988 seems to have suffused this season’s FA Cup also, the surprise element returning to football’s oldest saga with Cardiff, the club Gould managed briefly in 2000, bidding to become the first winners from outside the top flight in 28 years when they meet Portsmouth in Saturday’s final.
The second division (Championship) side could do worse than heed Gould’s formula for reversing the odds: “Don’t be negative, go out and be bold, be strong, be brave, be committed to the cause — that you’re going to cause an upset.”
Editing by Clare Fallon