On Saturday Wimbledon Football Club will begin the new season without John Fashanu. To give some idea of the sheer implausibility of his absence, try to picture the merry men without Robin Hood, the Beano without Dennis the Menace, or Dee, Dozy, Beaky and Mick without Titch. Fashanu came as close to being a part of the furniture at Wimbledon as a tall Barnardos boy with razor-sharp elbows, red boots and an expanding business empire in Africa can get. In this club of misfits and mavericks, that's quite close.

The usual reasons for the move have been juggled - nice pay day for the club, Fash cashing in before it's too late, a chance to play in Europe with Villa.

A far more plausible motive lies in a ritual meted out to all Wimbledon players on their birthdays. The club training ground, a tree-fringed public park off the A3 between the Robin Hood roundabout and a particularly immodest branch of Asda, also abuts a large cemetery. Birthday boys are escorted to the far end of the park among the graves and stripped, in the words of club groundsman Chris Perry, 'stark bollock naked'. Whatever the weather, they are then required to walk the half mile back to the club building. John Fashanu will be 31 next month. He'll be celebrating, fully clothed, in Birmingham.

So we now know why Fashanu's mind was elsewhere as he sat next to John Motson in the United States, trying to say as little about the game before him in as many words as possible. He was plainly back in SW19, plotting his exit. When there's no football being played, some footballers are still planning their next move.

Most, however, are sitting by a pool somewhere hot, or doing up the new house, or getting married, or sometimes all three. Vinny Jones, the last survivor of the old crazy gang, was getting married in his own inimitably stylish way. His wedding at a registry office in Watford was attended by family, friends, footballers and several minders employed by the newspaper which had bought the rights to the story. No match involving Jones is complete without a bit of argy-bargy, and his nuptials were no exception.

On a bright Monday morning before training, players saunter in and out of the club building. Several of them are wearing unfeasibly large sideburns. The coach wants to know what one of them is doing in a Villa shirt. Joe Kinnear, the manager, turns up with a briefcase, three hours after leaving his home in Mill Hill. Vinny, for some reason, doesn't show.

Dean Holdsworth, last season's top scorer, strolls out in bare feet and explains that he was not at the registry office 'but I went to the actual evening and that was very nice'. He doesn't recall any punch-ups with photographers from rival newspapers during that section of the celebrations. 'I think they should just let him get on with a nice day which he should remember throughout the rest of his life. Obviously it's about the couple who are getting married rather than all the hype around it. Obviously Vinny's decided to earn out of it and it's up to him.' Obviously.

Joe Kinnear went one better than most of his players, landing himself an exclusive invitation to Vinny's stag do in Cork. The location was convenient, as he was in Dublin at the time appearing on a daily live chat show on RTE during the World Cup. 'Overall, we broke all records,' he says. Not on the stag do, but in television audiences. For the stag party, he recalls: 'We went fishing, and they laid on golf. It was mainly a golfing crowd.'

Of course, the golf course. Wherever they were this summer, there were more Wimbledon footballers swinging clubs than joining them. Apart, that is, from all the black players. 'Black players are generally not that interested in golf, says Roger Joseph, with a slight curl in his lip that bears a front tooth raffishly fringed with gold plating. On the club holiday in Tenerife, a reward for their highest league position ever, they were all at it, apart from the black players. Some of them are quite good too.

Steve Talboys and John Scales both play off nine or ten, Dutch keeper Hans Segers plays off 14 and Dean Holdsworth off 18. Only Kinnear isn't up to much. 'Golf is my handicap, he says.

Not everyone went to Tenerife. 'It's not forced on players to go, says the manager. 'It's a choice for them. Fash didn't go because he was tied up in Nigeria or somewhere like that. There was one or two other senior players who stayed behind and did their own thing.'

Doing their own thing, or rather Terry Venables's thing, were Scales and Warren Barton, who were both on England duty. This entailed the high honour of two extra weeks' training. Whereafter, while Scales enjoyed his birthday without once being reduced to his birthday suit, Barton broadened his mind by driving with his half-Chinese fiancee round France and down to Barcelona in the Saab convertible.

'It was lovely to go to different places, he muses. 'We went past the Costa Brava into Barcelona itself. Funny place, really. I thought it would be nice restaurants, things like that, but it was very touristy really. I always thought it was going to be a bit hostile with the French but they were very nice people. I suppose if you treat them nice they look after you. (It's well known that this motto is inscribed on the soles of Vinny's boots).

As soon as Barton got back he organised his engagement party - marquee in the garden in Southfields, jazz band, the whole bit. Only half a dozen teammates were there, 'because most of them were still away'. Next summer Barton and his fiancee plan to get married in the Cayman Islands. If the entire squad attends the ceremony, we'll have conclusive proof that footballers are paid too much.

After slumming it for a month in a posh Dublin hotel suite, Joe Kinnear 'and the missus squirrelled themselves off to St Lucia for 10 days. 'I'm three days better off this year. Last year I only had a week off. We landed in St Lucia, had to go by helicopter to land on an exclusive estate.

'It was an all-inclusive holiday. You paid for everything before you go. I played tennis nearly every morning. There was a lot of Americans out there so I managed to knock a few of them sideways. They all talk a good game, the Yanks, the old septic tanks, and I took great pleasure in thrashing a few of them round the tennis courts. Kinnear, incidentally, is the last man in professional football who still talks in cockney rhyming slang.

Despite what you might imagine, not all footballers guzzled on the World Cup as greedily as the ordinary bloke in the street. Only Roger Joseph, who through Fashanu wangled tickets for Nigeria's games in Boston, actually went. Barton watched from the quarter-finals, 'but I suppose with England not being in it, it didn't give me that much interest', plus his girlfriend didn't fancy all those two-in-the-morning vigils. Holdsworth tuned in regularly, but 'basically I just watch forwards.

'Obviously I picked my games, says Hans Segers, but after a family holiday in Cyprus the Dutchman was too preoccupied by his business making ties ('club ties, company ties, golf ties), not to mention the new goalkeeping school he has set up with Phil Parkes. It's based in Wokingham because 'on that side of London there's really nothing for goalkeepers. Wokingham isn't as exotic as Nigeria, but on the business ladder, it's a start.

The players returned for pre-season training on 14 July. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't all moans, groans and spare tyres to rival the one that hugs Kinnear's midriff. Barton kept himself in trim with a bit of running, tennis, gym work, calling on the club's athletics coach if he felt like an hour in the pool. Holdsworth ran three or four miles every other day, and finished with 100 sit-ups and 100 press-ups in sets of 25 - 'just sort of taking easy really. After a holiday by a pool in the Seychelles he came in overweight, but only because he'd been pumping iron and 'obviously muscle weighs three times as much as fat.

'I'm always glad to get back, says Segers. 'You're a professional footballer and after a lay off of nearly 10 weeks you're hungry again. That's what I felt as soon as I got back.

So, many happy returns, except for those with a birthday coming up.