Football: Hammam's instinct for survival

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WHEN I was manager at Crystal Palace I used to endeavour, on occasion, to go and watch other coaches work in Europe. Although tempted, I never went to top clubs. I always went to a club that appeared to over- achieve. Top teams invariably bought the best players so it was pointless for me to watch them. I selected clubs who could not compete financially, but nevertheless in league position terms were up there with the big boys.

In search of a busman's holiday this week I was contemplating visiting Foggia in Italy or Deportivo La Coruna in Spain, two teams who have surprised and delighted in their respective countries. However, looking at the European tables I could not fail to marvel at a club whose exalted position rivals the flight of the bumblebee in unexplained phenomena. Wimbledon.

Wimbledon generate a reaction. Usually a distasteful one. They are the team everyone loves to hate. Their personalities are ugly and their footballing philosophy abhorred.

Wimbledon should not be a Premiership team. They should not be a First or even a Second Division team. On a hard core of only 1,500 supporters they should at best be a Third Division team, but more correctly a leading light in the Vauxhall Conference. Without doubt the achievements of their inspiration, Sam Hammam, are unparalleled in English football.

I have no affinity with Wimbledon or Sam. In many ways as tenants of my old club I dislike them as much as anyone, jealous of their lofty position and survival instinct. But I did, and do, respect them.

The driving force must be Hammam. In his period with the club he has worked with a Who's Who of English football. Dario Gradi, Dave Bassett, Bobby Gould, Ray Harford, Don Howe, Peter Withe, and now the ebullient Joe Kinnear. These are men with real footballing pedigree, yet they have compromised their beliefs to play the Wimbledon way.

The direct style which is often scoffed at was good enough to get the better of a draw at Anfield in mid- week. The highlights of the game on television showed that recent publicity involving John Fashanu probably cost the Dons what I thought was a good goal.

Sam's management philosophy is almost poached from the Cosa Nostra manual. He talks of discipline, family and loyalty, which is definitely not one-sided as witnessed by his 'thank you' presents of motor cars for Dave Bassett and Bobby Gould years after they left south London.

As a mathematician, who hopes to finish his PhD at Harvard in the near future, Sam does not see football as the beautiful game. He sees a problem which needs to be solved. So far he has come up with all the answers, but he forever lives on a knife edge knowing that one big mistake will cost his footballing family their future livelihood. There is no return from relegation for this club. The financial facts of life dictate it, but the fear of failure allied to a bold wish to beat the big boys keeps him driven.

The emotional rewards of staying in the top league and winning the FA Cup have been enormous, but repelling the continuous attacks on his children have taken their toll. However, for favoured son 'Fash' he feels he does not now have to make a defence. The referee last week did not give a foul for the challenge, and even after video review he saw nothing to report to the Football Association. In the light of this I too find it incredible that the FA should even ask John Fashanu for his account.

A testing week for all at Wimbledon ended miserably with a 2-1 defeat by West Ham. On this occasion Sam did not write on the away dressing-room walls, but he did carry 50 felt-tip pens which he gave to the West Ham fans he chatted to before the game. The size of West Ham's following was such that he could not take his usual place on the terraces behind the goal, and for once had to try and sit in the directors' box.

I sat next to him and felt rather than saw the gut- wrenching torture he was going through as his side, after early promise, slid 2-0 behind. He left after the second goal and he failed to see a typically spirited Wimbledon fightback.

The defeat leaves the Dons closer to the bottom than the top, closer to his fear than to his dream. No doubt aware of the size of his problem, he was in some quiet place working out a new solution.