The 14 May 1988 is a day I’ll never forget. It was my Mum’s birthday, and the late spring sun shone gloriously on London to give her an early birthday present.
But that isn’t the reason why this day was so memorable.
That day Wimbledon were playing Liverpool in the FA Cup Final.
Liverpool had just finished the season on top of the league with an impressive 90 points, losing only twice. Their team read like a list of footballing royalty. Despite losing goal machine Ian Rush to Juventus the previous July, they still had the likes of Bruce Grobbelaar, Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson, Steve Nicol, John Barnes, Steve McMahon, Jan Mølby, Ronnie Whelan, John Aldridge, and Peter Beardsley. They were also managed by a certain Kenny Dalglish.
By comparison, Wimbledon had finished ninth in the league with 57 points. Their squad of journeyman players, had spirit and (let’s not deny it) some skill, but could they really pull off the impossible?
Where it all began
I grew up in Earlsfield, SW London, about a 20 minute walk from Wimbledon’s Plough Lane stadium. So when I was old enough to go to a football game, there was little choice of where to go. To misquote The League of Gentlemen, it was a local club for local people. It may not have had the allure of Chelsea or Fulham, but I didn’t care. This was my team, and a story of belonging had begun.
I became a Dons fan at an exciting time. Wimbledon had been elected to the Football League at the expense of Workington, having won the non-league Southern League three times running. The next few years were a see-saw of emotions as we changed leagues six times in six years, just not always in the right direction!
1988 and all that
After a rise through the leagues that only Watford has matched, we reached the old Division One for the start of the 1986/87 season. It started well enough, even topping the table by September, before slipping slightly to finish sixth overall. An impressive debut for your first season in the top flight of English football.
Most people expected us to struggle the following season. It was the, “OK we know all about you now, so you’ll have to do something different” attitude. The problem was they still had to deal with our physicality and willingness to give our all. Sometimes playing to your strengths and having the will to win, trumps just about everything.
So come May we were Wembley bound for the first time as a professional club. We’d been there in the FA Amateur Cup Final in 1963, beating local rivals Sutton United 4–2. That was a performance that saw Eddie Reynolds score all four goals with his head; a feat not since matched in any Wembley cup final.
Call it youthful arrogance, but I thought we’d have a change of winning. Much like the final game of the 2012/13 season against Fleetwood Town, where we needed to win to remain a league club, I knew deep down we had a good chance.
The trouble was the 2013 Fleetwood team weren’t the 1988 Liverpool team.
The game wasn’t the best. Liverpool created chances, even scoring in the first half. The fact their goal was disallowed for a foul on one of their players in the build up made you wonder if this was going to be our day.
Then shortly before half time, we won a free kick out left. We were strong from set pieces, so could this be our chance? Dennis Wise dead ball delivery was perfection, as was Laurie Sanchez’s run between Hanson and Gary Gillespie. One glancing header later and it was delirium time.
At half time Dons coach Don Howe played a masterstroke. He’d got towels in an ice bucket half way through the first half. He knew the players would be hot on this sweltering early summer’s day. They’d run their socks off on the larger than normal pitch, and held their own. They’d need to cool down, and fast.
The second half started much like the first.
Then disaster. Clive Goodyear tackled John Aldridge inside the area, and the referee pointed to the spot. I stood there is disbelief. He clearly won the ball. I could see that even from where I was, high up in the terrace behind our goal.
Just like Liverpool’s disallowed goal, it was an atrocious decision.
As Aldridge dusted himself off to take the penalty, I stood there frozen. He couldn’t miss, could he? He doesn’t look entirely confident, I thought. He’s going to miss. Go on John. Do us a favour.
Ha! He did.
A weakish shot was saved by Dave “Lurch” Beasent as he flew salmonesque to his left, in so doing becoming the first goalkeeper to save a penalty in a Wembley final.
If I’m honest, the rest of the game was largely a blur. My all time Dons legend Alan Cork, father of Burnley’s Jack, came on to harass their midfield. Then the final whistle went and I openly wept.
BBC commentator John Motson uttered the immortal line, “The crazy gang have beaten the culture club”, but I just wanted to relive the day over and over again.
It was my Mum’s birthday, and my brother-in-law was hosting a party for her. I was excused the early part, well they’d have had an issue if they hadn’t, but I had to return after the game.
Having celebrated with the 30,000 odd Dons fans at Wembley, I made my way home. All the way people congratulated me on our victory. Walking from the station to my brother-in-law’s house cars beeped their horns in celebration, and shouted out the window as they drove by.
It was as if the whole of the UK outside Liverpool wanted us to win.
As I write this, we face a return to Wembley for an FA Cup game. This time it isn’t a final, just Tottenham in a 3rd round game. Just like in 1988 our form is sketchy, and we face a who’s who lineup of world class players. We’ve a strong team spirit, but is this enough to reach the fourth round?
We’ve won at Wembley before, in fact we’re unbeaten there. I’ve already mentioned the 1963 FA Amateur Cup Final. Then there was the 2015/16 League Two Payoff Final, where we beat Plymouth Argyle 2-0. Played three, won three. That’s a record worth perserving.
I’m taking my nephew to his first Wimbledon match, and only his second ever live game. He’s a Liverpool fan – I blame his parents 🙂 Could this be an omen for a repeat of the 1988 performance? If so Wimbledon, please don’t put us through such a mixture of emotions this time.