Football: Wimbledon struggle to be loved

FOR anyone not totally of their persuasion, going to see Wimbledon involves taking along a clutter of pre-conceived ideas, none of them positive. Vinnie Jones and the rest have not exactly striven to cajole us into viewing them sympathetically. The latest nasty little business of the club's owner, Sam Hammam, allegedly scrawling obscenities on a dressing-room wall at Upton Park, was in keeping with the sort of language that comes in from the public in the mail whenever any of us in the media criticise, or even question, the club and some of its players' contributions to football's propriety and standards of skill.

Some time ago a headline on one of these columns asked whether the then First Division needed Wimbledon. The article simply aired the view that if professional football was not to become autocratic, clubs of modest means and playing ugly football still had to be offered the chance to go from non-league to the top, but consideration had to be given to a stadium standards test. Bearing in mind that at the time Wimbledon were at Plough Lane, the question was legitimate, or so you would have thought.

Never has the mail box been so full. Whatever Mr Hammam scrawled last weekend would qualify as literature compared with these rustic 'letters' scribbled on paper that was certainly not Basildon Bond. There would be no fun in always having readers who nod agreement but these were potential psychopaths. Suffice to say Wimbledon had reprinted an extract in their programme.

Those who know Mr Hammam say he is an agreeable man, unlikely to condone graffiti in public places but good at getting his explicit message across in what should be the privacy of his players' dressing room. The story goes that he had never been to a football match before he went to Plough Lane and on the basis of love at first sight bought the club. Well, if you had never seen the Bolshoi you might think the Middlewitch-on-the-Bog clog dancers were the bees knees. Anway, one assumes his passion for Wimbledon somewhat exceeds his appreciation of the game, but no matter. Any chairman who stands in the rain behind the goal roaring on his team from empty terraces at Selhurst Park cannot be all bad, even if his sense of humour seems a shade lacking.

When Gary Lineker grinned wickedly at a BBC television camera and said you would be better off watching one of Wimbledon's matches on Ceefax, Mr Hammam and his genuine but sometimes less than tactful manager, Joe Kinnear, were apoplectic.

The recent dressing-room incident told us a lot about Wimbledon and provided another example of the way the Football Association seems to be led by more headless chickens than have ever been seen in one of Graham Taylor's teams. First the FA were going to ignore the incident and then they were persuaded to continue with their investigations even though West Ham said that as far as they were concerned the matter was closed.

The affair did nothing for football's credibility and even less for what remained of Wimbledon's reputation. It was portrayed as just another example of the club's awfulness, another Vinnie-like indiscretion, but the fact that the owner feels obliged to 'psyche up' his team in this way actually reflects all of the club's problems in competing with much richer ones and the need to play on its greatest asset, its combative spirit. This, after all, is a club which in 16 years has risen from the wilderness of non-league football to reach and win an FA Cup final against Liverpool and establish a seven-season run in the top division. And all of this in spite of the need to sell some of its best players and promote from within. But still Wimbledon hardly ever win compliments even when they do string together some decent football and beat teams worth (or at least, costing) millions.

Kinnear predicts a place in the top 10 this season, and who would bet against him, yet his entire squad has only four players (Hans Segers, John Scales, Vinnie Jones and John Fashanu) who have any serious experience of life with more illustrious clubs. The bulk have come through the ranks or were bought at the cheap end of the market. The club's industry in the production of players capable of confounding teams costing fortunes is a tribute to their work but, more importantly, something to prize in these days when expensively bought-in sides are dominating football throughout Europe.

None of this rare praise makes it possible to defend Wimbledon from the worst excesses of their oafish behaviour, but their successful struggle to remain in the senior division is something we should not be too prejudiced to recognise. The calls for a smaller Premier League are indisputably valid but that could concentrate talent within the resources of even fewer clubs. Wimbledon represent the rump of the underprivileged who cling on, though they hardly needed to drop their shorts to prove it. Their survival among the more acceptable brethren of the Premiership keeps elitism at bay.