Ten years after: and the gang is crazier than ever

They were expected to be relegated straight away, but after a decade in the top flight, Wimbledon kick off on Saturday as part of the furniture. Trevor Haylett on the hard work behind the fairy-tale
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A dietician called in on Wimbledon Football Club the other day. Robbie Earle, a super-fit 31-year-old, was told how he could maintain those lung-bursting runs through another season, while Vinnie Jones discovered that with more carbohydrates and less protein, he could become a more effective performer.

Diet sheets and healthy living? Science never really figured highly in the Wimbledon culture. There was a time when the Crazy Gang would turn up its nose at these new fangled ideas, turn up the volume on the ghetto-blaster and prepare to turn over another big-name Saturday opponent.

But times have changed and staying involved in what is now regarded as the world's finest league requires that Wimbledon pay heed to those changes. Jones, an honourable professional when he is not head-banging opponents, made sure all the younger players listened to what the dietician had to say.

Wimbledon's rawness has not disappeared completely, but things are more refined now than was the case 10 years ago. It was in 1986 that those at the classy end of football's main street were forced to take note of the upstarts muscling in on their patch. Only a decade after they had been elected to the Football League, the unlikely heroes from south-west London were up there with the big boys, promoted to Division One.

Thankfully, the rich and famous breathed, Wimbledon would not be around for long, they would surely be one-season wonders. The pundits have fallen into that same trap every year since that 1986-87 campaign when, under Dave Bassett's inspirational leadership, the newcomers led the table after five games and finished a highly creditable sixth.

It is a remarkable story, one that salutes the capabilities of the little man if he brings spirit and determination to his work. Wimbledon believe they have never gained proper recognition for their achievements, but then they would say that, wouldn't they? They have a problem with perceived persecution. Remove the prejudice, however, and even their most vehement adversary would concede that they have a point.

In today's terms, a "Wimbledon" would be the equivalent of Stevenage Borough playing against Manchester United in the Premiership by 2007. Stevenage would then, in the succeeding 10 years, not only manage to hold on to their status but also pick up the FA Cup and qualify for Europe through their League position.

It is the stuff of fairy-tales, but if Wimbledon managed it, why not also the likes of the Vauxhall Conference champions? It is those who have done it who are convinced it will not happen again."The Premier League breakaway, sponsorship, television deals, the Bosman repercussions, they all conspire to widen the gap between those at the top and those down below," says Lawrie Sanchez, the man whose Wembley header against Liverpool gave Wimbledon the FA Cup in 1988 and set every non-league side dreaming the impossible.

"We were at Stevenage the other night and they were asking us what the secret was. With the changes that have happened already in the game and those that will follow, I can't see any other club doing what we did. As for us, it is going to be that much harder to stay in the Premiership for the next 10 years."

As the manager battling every day against the economic illogicality of Wimbledon's survival, Joe Kinnear would be the first to support that assessment. He has forgone a summer holiday in order to scour Europe in an attempt to join the fashion for foreign flair, but he was forced to return home empty-handed.

"The Shearer deal has done us no favours," Kinnear says. "Everyone abroad has run away with the idea that all English clubs have that sort of money to splash around. I was quoted pounds 3m-plus for only average players in Russia and Scandinavia. When I protested they replied: 'But you are from England, you pay pounds 15m for players, don't insult us with your low offers'."

Despite the multi-million pound bounty arriving from the next Sky Television contract, money remains the biggest obstacle for Wimbledon, who have just renewed their tenancy agreement with Crystal Palace for another five years. On average gates which, despite rising sharply last season, still struggled to exceed 13,000, their Premiership existence will always balance precariously, which is why the club's owner, Sam Hammam, so actively pursued a move to Dublin or Cardiff.

That now looks unlikely, so the old methods of keeping the club viable - buying players cheaply, selling them on for a nice profit - will be maintained, as will Wimbledon's attention to a thriving youth policy (three FA Youth Cup semi-final appearances in the last five years). Wimbledon's one major summer acquisition, the pounds 1.9m Millwall fullback Ben Thatcher, more than doubled their previous transfer record.

More importantly, it is the first time the close season did not signal any departures from the club. That-cher is a typical Wimbledon buy. "Every player that comes here is taking a step up and possesses a hunger to become a better player," Kinnear says. "All of them have experienced the hardships of life. They see what we have done for others, those like Warren Barton, who we took from Maidstone, converted into a player good enough for England and who then moved to Newcastle for pounds 4m."

Thatcher cited "team spirit and attitude" as his prime reasons for joining. They are qualities successive players have put forward through the years to explain what makes Wimbledon special, even though, on occasion, it has brought disciplinary trouble.

Dean Holdsworth, the leading scorer for the past four seasons, says that while the Crazy Gang might not be so crazy now, old habits remain. "We used to get up to scrapes in the old days that we couldn't get away with now because of the publicity surrounding the game. We are a bit more cultured, maybe not so wild, but the atmosphere, the camaraderie is as good as ever," he says.

Dave Beasant, a Plough Lane veteran through nine seasons and the goalkeeper whose departure to Newcastle signalled the break-up of the 1988 Wembley winners, recalled the early times with affection. "I remember a time we were on an end-of-season tour to France, staying in dormitories and fed up that we had only got a pounds 5 rise in our contracts. We stuck Dave Bassett against a wall, put a mattress in front of him and then laid into it with our fists until he agreed to give us a bit more. I think that earned us another pounds 1.50. We stuck together like the Three Musketeers, all for one and one for all."

Sanchez explains the bonds that tie together successive Wimbledon teams by relating the story of two new recruits who arrived in the summer and for whom the Wimbledon way proved an eye-opener. "We were away on a pre- season tour and after-wards both said how amazed they were that all the players stayed out late at night and all worked hard the next day. No matter what time they got in, everyone was up at 8am for breakfast.

"During the long training runs, no one dared drop out because they didn't want to be seen to be weakening. At other clubs, they said there would always be one or two who fell by the wayside. Not here."

Apart from his Wembley winner, Sanchez also had the distinction of scoring the goal at Huddersfield in May 1986 that clinched promotion to the First Division. He ended his career at Swindon before taking his first job in management with Sligo Rovers. A year ago, the offer of a Wimbledon return as reserve team boss was too good to turn down.

"It is only when you go away that you realise how much Wimbledon are revered by clubs of a similar size. This is a unique club and the managers that followed Bassett, Bobby Gould and Don Howe and later Ray Harford, didn't try to change the methods that had been successful."

After rejecting the opportunity last year to manage the Republic of Ireland, Kinnear feels more committed to the cash-strapped club than ever before. In January, Kinnear will celebrate five years in his unenvied job. "I don't mind admitting I would love to swap places with Alex Ferguson or Kevin Keegan for a while, just to see what an open cheque book looks like. Somehow I don't think they would be too willing to swap."

The next 10 years begin at Selhurst Park on Saturday when Manchester United are the season's first visitors. Despite the evidence of the Charity Shield, the evidence of the last decade suggests it would be unwise to bet against Wimbledon's chances of pulling off another surprise.

Wimbledon's League position in the top division 1986-96

1986-87 6th

1987-88 7th

1988-89 12th

1989-90 8th

1990-91 7th

1991-92 13th

1992-93 12th

1993-94 6th

1994-95 9th

1995-96 14th