AFC Wimbledon vs Liverpool: The Crazy Gang was much more than John Fashanu and Vinnie Jones, says John Scales

As Wimbledon get set to meet Liverpool in a nostalgia-inducing tie tonight, defender who was part of the Dons’ ’88 Cup-winning team tells Glenn Moore it was a volatile dressing room but that the legend has been exaggerated

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Such are the tales that have grown up around Wimbledon’s 1988 FA Cup final triumph that Cannizaro House, a grand hotel on Wimbledon Common, ought to be haunted by the ghosts of Fash and Vinnie, wrecking the bar, putting the nut on refined guests and feeding the Christmas tree into the fire.

Instead, when John Scales and I meet there, all is calm. Tonight’s FA Cup rematch between AFC Wimbledon and Liverpool has stirred memories, but not spectres.

The Crazy Gang stayed at Cannizaro House the night before they stunned Double-chasing Liverpool by winning the FA Cup. It was an uncomfortably posh venue for a club full of players who had come up the hard way. When the nervous tension began to manifest itself in flying bread rolls, manager Bobby Gould sent them to the pub with a handful of tenners.

A few beers were had and, though John Fashanu later dented a door, putting his fist into it after being accosted by a News of the World hack keen to corroborate a tale of illicit romance, the rest of the team were relaxed. “The pub was perfect, the distraction we needed, we had a laugh,” says Scales, who played for Wimbledon at Wembley, and later for Liverpool in the 1996 final.

“The Cup final in those days was just massive. It was the only game, the whole focus of the media. When we came here everyone could feel the tension. You can’t say, ‘It’s just another game’ – it’s not. You’d done the training, been through the press, you are desperately trying to stay calm, get a good night’s sleep.”

The final, and Wimbledon’s astonishing rise from non-league to Wembley, was recently the subject of a BT Sport documentary that put Fashanu and Vinnie Jones centre stage and focused on the intimidation, both of opponents and team-mates.

This has angered several contributors, including former manager Dave Bassett, owner Sam Hammam and players such as Terry Gibson, who described Fashanu’s claims to be the dressing-room leader as “deluded” and Jones as “the only one he controlled”.

Scales was in the film and, while he says it accurately depicted how daunting he found it dealing with characters like Fashanu in his first season, he stresses there was so much more to Wimbledon than thuggery.

“Fash was a difficult character, Vinnie was his sidekick, they wanted to use the media to propel themselves above everyone else. That to me is selfish, insecure behaviour. Wimbledon was about so much more than Fash and Vinnie.”

Scales arrived from Bristol Rovers with Gould, who had succeeded Bassett, the much-loved gaffer who had taken the team from Fourth Division to First. He came into a dressing room of players fearing change and unwelcoming to newcomers. Scales, a latecomer to professional football, was “a bit different,” he recalls, and “an easy target”.

He said: “I did almost have to psych myself up to go to training some days but that was when I was settling in. The film had a clip of me walking around the pond on the Common as if I was the traumatised victim of abuse who had never recovered and was I going to throw myself in? It wasn’t like that. I look back upon it with some great memories. It made me the player I was. But you had to be a strong character to survive. I hated that because I saw talented players who were not able to deal with it fall by the wayside.

“It was an incredibly volatile dressing room, a destructive environment. Things happened which belong to a bygone age you could never tolerate now. A lot of things went on that should not have done but Sam [Hammam] didn’t want to rock the boat.

“The way people acted you could see was driven by their egos, their insecurities, their controlling nature. My nemesis was Wally Downes, a  difficult character, one of the old brigade.

“Just because I did not get on with Fash, Wally, I’d never say they didn’t bring qualities on the pitch. We were a force to be reckoned with because of them; but off the pitch it was in spite of them.

“Wimbledon was not that unique in that era – similar things went on at other clubs. A lot of it was hilarious and brought us together. There was a special bond between players – and the staff, from physios and kitmen to Frank, who ran the transport  cafe [at Wimbledon’s A3 training ground].”

The 1988 final is always billed as one of the great FA Cup shocks, but the Dons had come sixth and seventh in the League in successive seasons and had good players: the majority went on to play international football.

“It was a shock because of where we had come from, the type of players, the style,” says Scales. “It was not the most beautiful football to watch, but we were very good at what we did. Dennis [Wise] could cross the ball better than anyone in the country, Fash was an intimidating striker who scored goals, Terry Gibson a great little player, Terry Phelan, Andy Thorn, Lawrie Sanchez... we had a well-balanced team.

“We worked so hard on the training pitch, harder than anyone in the country. We worked relentlessly fine-tuning what we did. It was a group of very dedicated players with first-class coaches.”

Scales’ coaches at Wimbledon are a pedigree list: Don Howe, Terry Burton, Ray Harford, Dave Kemp. When he moved to Liverpool he was surprised to find they were less up-to-date  and professional in training and preparation.

The film downplays the tactical preparation of Gould and Howe in that FA Cup final. Wise switched wings to help Clive Goodyear stifle John Barnes, then beautifully delivered the 37th-minute set-piece Sanchez converted for the only goal. Set plays were a Wimbledon speciality. Hard work on the training ground also helped Dave Beasant save John Aldridge’s spot-kick.

Watching a recording of the final it is clear that a myth has grown up around it. Jones’ notorious early ‘reducer’ on Steve McMahon did not even make the 30-minute Match of the Day highlights package and would not even be a red card now. McMahon, far from being intimidated, elbowed Jones as he got up. He was so unflustered that when Fashanu and Gibson rush him at the restart after Sanchez’s goal, he slips the ball one side of Fashanu and darts the other side of him leaving the two Wimbledon players to collide like Keystone Kops.

Wimbledon’s antics in the tunnel have also become the stuff of legend but Scales said: “It was the same as usual, Vinnie and Fash were incredibly hyped but Liverpool had played in some massive games, they had played us, they knew what we were about. I’m not sure they were intimidated. They would have rolled their eyes.”

Indeed Liverpool were brighter from the start and only fine goalkeeping, and Brian Hill’s failure to play advantage when Peter Beardsley was poised to score, kept the Dons in the game prior to Sanchez’s 37-minute goal.

Neither was it such a culture clash. Liverpool often played long from the back, Wimbledon were prepared to pass in midfield. By Eighties standards the tackling was far from brutal.

Watching from the bench was Scales, who came on after 64 minutes. He recalled: “When we took the lead you think, ‘we’ve got a long way to go to hold out’, but at the moment everyone is up, we can’t believe we’ve taken the lead, then you can’t believe Lurch has saved the penalty.

“At the end there is almost total relief that you have got over the finishing line. People say ‘it must have been the most incredible feeling’ and there is elation, but it is about the relief of getting your hands on the medal.”

Scales went on to spend seven seasons at Wimbledon. Having arrived as a full-back Howe converted him into a centre-half so successfully he cost Liverpool a then-sizable £3.5m and played for England. Now he runs several sports-related businesses, promotes grassroots football, does match punditry and is working on a project for a football museum. Like all the 1988 team he has been invited to Kingsmeadow.

“My ticket was delivered by the chairman [Erik Samuelson]. It is a special club," said Scales, who still lives in Wimbledon. He is, though, a Liverpool fan from boyhood. He  hopes and believes the Premier League team will win though admits watching Wimbledon lose would “be painful”. But he adds: “a tie where you have everything to lose and nothing to gain puts players under enormous pressure. AFC have their work cut out to contain Liverpool’s attacking threat, but defensively Liverpool are a bit all over the place. I have been in cup upsets. The underdog can win.”

The Crazy Gang in ’88: Where are they now?

Dave Beasant After spells at Newcastle and Chelsea, now goalkeeping coach at Stevenage.

Clive Goodyear Trained as physiotherapist after retiring from game with knee injury.

Eric Young Went on to play for Wales and now works as an accountant near Heathrow.

Andy Thorn Enjoyed minimal success as manager with Coventry and Kidderminster.

Terry Phelan Represented Ireland in 1994 World Cup. Now works as coach in Manchester.

Lawrie Sanchez Led Wycombe to 2001 semi-finals and coached Northern Ireland from 2004-07.

Vinnie Jones Became Wales international before transforming into movie actor.

Alan Cork Limited success as manager and coach. Son Jack now plays for Southampton.

Dennis Wise Led Millwall to 2004 final. Briefly director of football at Newcastle in 2008.

Terry Gibson Assisted Sanchez at Northern Ireland. Now a pundit for Spanish television.

John Fashanu Brief career as TV host and also managed a Sunday league side.

Laurie Cunningham (sub) Returned to Spain with Rayo Vallecano before dying in a car accident in Madrid in 1989.