A nose for notoriety

Simon O'Hagan studies the behaviour patterns of a club who thrive on controversy . . . meanwhile, in today's ties, Wimbledon prepare to renew hostilities with Liverpool as United and Newcastle plan for foreign fields
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EVERYONE has their own way of defining what is unique about Wimbledon Football Club. Allen Batsford, the manager who took them into the Football League in 1977, says it's a case of the little man who's got to fight for survival. Bobby Gould, the manager who took them to victory in the FA Cup final in 1988, calls it "inner belief". But Don Howe, Gould's assistant, possibly gets closest to it when he says it's a club where having the chairman and managing director in on half-time team talks is the most natural thing in the world.

Convention goes out of the window at Wimbledon, along with a lot of other things, some people would say. There have been indications in recent times that Wimbledon were becoming more like other clubs, certainly in their playing style. But then along comes Vinnie Jones - the purest embodiment of the Wimbledon spirit - to bite a few noses and stoke the myth of the Crazy Gang. Just as one was beginning to admire Wimbledon for their indomitability, so their grossness gets in the way.

Today's FA Cup fifth-round tie at Liverpool is the sort of match on which Wimbledon's reputation was founded, long before the two of them met at Wembley seven years ago in the final that produced the biggest upset since Sunderland beat Leeds 15 years previously. It was Leeds, of course, who helped put Wimbledon on the map 20 years ago when the then Southern League team took the First Division champions to a replay in the fourth round of the FA Cup, losing to a goal that went in off Dave Bassett's leg in front of 47,000 people at Selhurst Park.

Batsford, now youth team coach at Millwall, had joined Wimbledon from Walton and Hersham in 1974, bringing with him a group of players "who had been through the mill", Bassett among them. "Apart from being good players they were experienced players, good leaders of men, and we gelled," Batsford said. Three successive Southern League titles and a place in the Fourth Division was finally theirs, and although Batsford did not hang around long, the momentum was maintained under Dario Gradi and then Bassett, who became manager in 1981.

If, up until then, Wimbledon were to most people an irrelevant little club from an unlikely corner of south-west London, that was soon to change as Bassett led them on the long-ball rampage through the divisions until, horror of horrors, Wimbledon became a First Division club in 1986. And even more amazingly, they've remained there ever since, in spite of the upheaval of the move from Plough Lane to Selhurst Park and gates that barely average 8,000.

Lots of clubs would claim to have a fighting tradition, but Wimbledon are a class apart. "The thing was, they were brave enough to do their own thing," Batsford said. "Not many clubs would have." For Howe, what marked Wimbledon out was the friendliness of the place, which derived in great part from the willingness of the men in charge to mix with the lowliest.

Bobby Gould is in no doubt that Wimbledon's success owes almost everything to the commitment of Sam Hammam, the club's owner and managing director. "Sam's passion for the game is incredible," Gould said. "I remember we needed to sign a goalkeeper once, and when I went up to Burnley to have a look at one, Sam came with me. How many managing directors would do that? After a couple of minutes the bloke we were watching let a bad one in, and I said, `Sam, I don't think we need stay any longer,' and he looked at me and said, `You must be joking.' "

Hammam once said of Wimbledon: "We have to sustain ourselves by sheer power and the attitude that we will kick ass. We are an academy. We find gems and turn them into finished articles." The first assertion, coming from a man who has consistently supported Vinnie Jones, is highly questionable. No club is obliged to kick ass. But the second assertion is harder to disagree with.

Wimbledon's players are nearly always overlooked until the consistency of the club's record demands attention. The Cup-winning team, an unregarded mob before overturning the might of Liverpool, now reads like a football A-list, with names like Beasant, Phelan, Fashanu, Wise and Scales (a substitute that day) prominent among them. The rise of Warren Barton underlines the way Wimbledon have maintained their record of unearthing talent.

The aesthetic argument against Wimbledon is one thing, and some of their critics could be accused of snobbery. But the emphasis on the physical, not to say illegal, is another matter. Gould may say that "entrenched beliefs are never altered by the facts", but the facts are these: of the nine other clubs who have remained in the top division throughout the period since Wimbledon joined it, none has anything like as bad a disciplinary record. Wimbledon have had 30 players sent off in that time. The nearest to them are Southampton, with 22, and then Liverpool and Tottenham, with 14 each.

But are Wimbledon mellowing? "I wouldn't say they've mellowed," said Don Howe. "They've adjusted. Football goes in fashions, and the fashion at the time Wimbledon came up was very direct. But things start to change, managers change, and now they are quite happy to pass it around."

Managers do change, but the remarkable thing about Wimbledon is that, with the possible exception of Peter Withe, briefly in charge in 1991, the club's character remains constant whoever is in charge. Howe sees Joe Kinnear firmly in the Wimbledon tradition, quite prepared to get thrown in the bath at the club where the idea that no individual is bigger than the institution has more than mere clich value. Wimbledon, indeed, are not just a club. They're a cause.