Football: Naked ambition pays off for Earle

Phil Shaw talks to the Wimbledon player who hopes to tear a strip off Chelsea in Sunday's FA Cup semi-final

Like the Tour de France in reverse, a yellow jersey is awarded to the Wimbledon player whose training performance is voted the worst by his colleagues. The slogan on it reads: "Today I was dog-poo, but tomorrow I'll be brilliant". Robbie Earle, it should surprise no one to learn, is one of only two members of the squad yet to wear it as the campaign enters its final month.

In the Premiership as on the practice pitch, Earle's whole season has been a tour de force. "The Duke", as he is known in the dressing-room, is again among the leading midfield marksmen, scoring in every round of the FA Cup leading to Sunday's semi-final against Chelsea at Highbury. And his box-to-box industry during Wimbledon's three-pronged bid for honours led Glenn Hoddle to put him on standby for England's game with Italy.

It was therefore a surprise when the England manager ignored Earle for the ensuing friendly against Mexico, despite a rash of withdrawals. Instead of preparing for his Wembley debut, the 32-year-old from North Staffordshire was in Aberdeen for a testimonial match between the two sets of Dons.

"I was jumping whenever my mobile rang," Earle confessed. "It'd be my Mum and I'd say: 'Get off the line in case Glenn's trying to get through!'

"But when people ask if I'm disappointed I think back to the years I spent grafting at places like Halifax, Rochdale and Scunthorpe with Port Vale. That teaches you humility. My age is probably counting against me, but I've just got to try to force his hand.''

Being in a Cup-winning side could only enhance Earle's claims. It would also complete, in a symbolic sense, a surprisingly gradual progression through the ranks that was nearly nipped in the bud. Just as Stoke City were pondering whether to promote him from associate schoolboy, the 16- year-old with a serious soft spot for Manchester City suffered a broken leg.

On his release, he was invited for a month's trial at Vale Park by John Rudge, then the assistant manager. Breaking into the side at 17, he went on to play in every position except goalkeeper and left-back, becoming synonymous with Vale's rise under Rudge.

"He has been very influential for me. Myself and Mark Bright came back in the afternoons and he'd stay behind to work with us until five or six o'clock. He always said we'd make it if we were dedicated.''

Loyalty to Rudge and a belief in honouring contracts kept him in the Potteries longer than was perhaps good for his career. When Vale accepted Wimbledon's offer of pounds 775,000 - which looks a steal six years on - he wondered whether fate was at work.

For in 1988, shortly after his starring role in Vale's epic victory over Tottenham, Earle invited his team-mates to a Cup final barbecue. He drew the winning ticket in the sweep: the Crazy Gang to win 1-0.

Now he was being wooed by their owner at his imposing house in St John's Wood. Sam Hammam told him that by the time he left, Earle would either be his club-record signing or he (Hammam) would never speak to him again.

When he agreed to sign, Hammam kissed him excitedly. Earle saw it as a sign of a shared passion to succeed. "I'd spoken to so-called bigger clubs, but Sam and Ray Harford (then manager) talked about how they saw me fitting into the team whereas the others concentrated on the financial side.''

Hammam convinced him he was joining a family. Chatting this week at the homely converted transport cafe where the players take tea and tuna rolls after training, we could have been in an old-fashioned living room. Teenaged trainees mingled with the octogenarian chairman, Stanley Reed. Even the autograph hunter who cheekily asked Mick Harford for an orange left with fruit in his hand rather than a flea in his ear.

(Incidentally, the hard-as-nails Harford is the other player still to "win" the yellow jersey. "They daren't give it to him," Earle laughed, "even in a secret ballot.'')

Yet if Earle's description of the Dons' initiation rites is anything to go by, this is also the most dysfunctional family since the Simpsons. "We were running through the woods when the lads jumped me and stripped me. They gave me a traffic cone to cover my best bits and left me.

"How you react to that determines how much more stick you'll get. If you fight back, or don't laugh it off, you're liable to find your jacket cut up or your shoes burning.''

Once, in Norway, Earle returned to the team's hotel to see his clothes, tied in a chain, dangling from an eighth-storey window. However, opponents view Wimbledon as "a glorified pub team" at their peril. "We're very professional behind the image. We've got some excellent technical players, and the boss (Joe Kinnear) is as good as anyone tactically.''

The antics seem to help the bonding process. Unusually, the players often go racing or simply hang out together after training. "It helps you get a feeling for the people you're working for and with. People talk about commitment. It's an inbred thing here.

"Vinnie (Jones) left once and the Crazy Gang spirit carried on. Fash (John Fashanu) left and it stayed strong. A great thing this year has been the way seven lads from the youth set-up have established themselves. Everything that happens with the first team goes on at junior level, too. They call themselves the Brat Pack, and it just keeps evolving.''

Earle received a maximum 10 for craziness from Jones in a tabloid article which infuriated Kinnear. But he has also created a one-man Sensible Faction within the Crazy Gang, proving himself an articulate broadcaster as well as taking a computer course in case he opts for the media rather than management in the long term.

Chelsea's foreign legion bar his way in the immediate term, although Wimbledon and Earle tend to thrive against them. "I scored against them on my debut. There are certain teams you feel you're going to score against. Bristol Rovers were one when I was at Vale, Chelsea are another.

"I suppose we look across at them a little enviously. They're just up the road, they've got big support and they're fashionable. But that just means we always want to put one over them. We've also got a great record at Arsenal, so we're hoping the two things come together.

The fatigue evident during Wimbledon's recent poor run has been as much mental as physical, Earle argued. "We've never been in a position like this season - two semis and high in the League - so we've had to learn how to adjust. But I'm sure you'll see everyone totally refreshed and focused on Sunday.''

Wimbledon need to recapture the form that saw off the holders, Manchester United, despite falling behind in the closing minutes at Old Trafford. Earle headed the equaliser, giving him "the greatest feeling".

Soon after the replay, he took his "other" family for a day out in Brighton. A group of United fans spotted him and good-naturedly bemoaned his part in their downfall. Which goes to show, Mr Hoddle, that it is not too late to recognise Robbie Earle.

News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits