AFC Wimbledon and the magic of the FA Cup

Every sports fan knows, that every now and then the result of a game beggars belief. On such occasions the form book goes out of the window, and shares in crystal balls plummet. There’s no rhyme or reason to the result…. or is there?

Yesterday saw two Premier League teams exit the FA Cup. In fact only seven of the 20 Premier League teams will play in the 5th round. Millwall beat Wolves in controversial style. But arguably the biggest shock of the 4th round, was AFC Wimbledon’s 4-2 win against West Ham United.

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“Making good use of the things that we find. Things that the everyday folks leave behind”

The Wombling Song – Lyrics: Mike Batt

Wimbledon’s squad are a rag bag, but effective, mix of young untamed talent and seasoned journeymen. In fact the cost of their three goalscorers last night was nothing, nada, niente! By contrast the cost of West Ham’s two goalscorers is £50m. The whole West Ham’s squad cost £162m, which could have bought the Wimbledon squad 3000 times over. West Ham’s squad is full of international players. Wimbledon only full international, Montserrat forward Lyle Taylor, left for Charlton Athletic last summer.

So why did AFC Wimbledon triumph?

A lot has been said about desire. The multi-millionaires of Premier League teams used to the trappings of a closeted existence, having to squash into a small changing room with little of the home comforts they’re used to. Throw in a largely partisan home crowd, and it can feel like a world away from where you’d want to be. But these are professionals. They should be able to deal with such situations, but it was clear that for at least the first half they didn’t.

So is the FA Cup a distraction from the bigger prize for Premier League clubs. You could argue that for the big boys, yes it is. The financial gain of winning the FA Cup pales into insignificance compared to winning the Premier League or Champions League. So the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, and Liverpool could be forgiven for giving the FA Cup a lower priority.

But this was West Ham. They’re currently in 10th place, some 13 points off a European place next season. They’ve next to zero chance of reaching that goal. So with nothing else to play for, why didn’t they:

  • Field their strongest squad.
  • Look like they give a toss for the first 45 minutes.

Surely winning the one piece of silver wear they still had a chance of winning should have been a priority. You could argue that the West Ham starting 11 on Saturday was more than capable of winning the game. With the likes of Mark Nobel, Andy Carroll, and Javier Hernández, it should have been men against boys.

For the first half, it wasn’t. West Ham had one early effort that hit the woodwork, but by half time hadn’t threatened the Wimbledon goal further, and had themselves conceded two goals. Half time saw three changes in personal in an effort to get back into the game. But two minutes in and the three players brought on, only stood and watched as Wimbledon went 3-0 up.

Had that early Hernandez chance gone in rather than hitting the post, maybe things would have ended differently. But Wimbledon had enough of the ball before this to suggest they could make a game of it. And once that first deflected shot went in, we suspected something special was about to happen. When a defensive catastrophe led the second goal, we KNEW the shock was very much on.

The second half brought the West Ham cavalry. They scored a good goal ten minutes after we went 3-0 up, then got another from a direct free kick . With 20 minutes left, we suspected West Ham would sneak a draw, or worse, a win. But as the game went on, Wimbledon looked relatively comfortable defensively.

The final nail came with the Dons fourth goal. With 88 minutes gone, most teams would have run down the clock and keep the ball down by the nearest corner flag. Not Wimbledon. They went for the jugular. Their two goal hero Scott Wagstaff passed to Anthony Wordworth who appeared in acres of space in the West Ham penalty area. One exquisite cross to the back stick later, and there was 19 year old academy product Toby Sibbick heading in his first senior goal. A great goal, and an even better goal celebration. As manager Wally Downes said, that goal gave the fans a chance to enjoy those final few minutes. It was the final nail in West Ham’s FA Cup coffin for this season.

With both Millwall and Wimbledon through, the anticipation of who they’d meet in the next round grew to a crescendo. But dreams of away trips to Old Trafford or Anfield we’re dashed, when they were drawn against each other. Yes Wimbledon are at home again in yet another London FA Cup derby. Haringay Borough, West Ham, and now Millwall.

Could Wimbledon’s dream repeat itself? Only time will tell, but Wimbledon fans everywhere will remember Saturday 26th January 2018 for a very, very long time.

What does £134k mean to AFC Wimbledon?

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Today League One AFC Wimbledon beat fellow League One club Fleetwood Town in the FA Cup third round. It meant they take home £134,000 prize money. They’ll get slightly more as the gate receipts are shared between the two clubs, but as Fleetwood have one of the lowest home attendances in the League, it won’t make a massive difference.

But what difference will the prize money make?

Let’s start with the secretive world of player salaries. AFC Wimbledon have been punching above their financial weight for some years now. They’ve been favourites for relegation so many times, largely because of their low playing budget, yet have so far flattered to deceive.

The average salary of a League One player is around £70,000 per annum. So winning £134,000 nearly pays for two players salary. With a squad of (say) 28 players, a team getting a windfall of that amount, gets a return of approximately 15% of their playing budget.

As mentioned above, things don’t stop there. There is 50% of the gate receipts, after expenses have been deducted. Then if you’re lucky to have your game screened live on TV, there’s anything up to £100k added on top.

So for clubs like AFC Wimbledon, this is a massive amount. The club is currently sitting at the bottom of League One. They’ve put together some useful results of late, only losing one of their last five matches, but are in need of some fresh talent in the transfer window.

So having extra cash in the bank, and the attraction of a fourth round cup tie later in the month, could just tip the balance to getting a player to sign a contract. As an AFC Wimbledon fan myself, I certainly hope so.

10 July 2002: In the Wider Interest of Football

In the wider scheme of things, the 10th July 2002 won’t go down as a major historical date. In fact the only significant event according to was the sale at Sotheby’s of Peter Paul Rubens’ painting The Massacre of the Innocents for £49.5 million.

In football circles however, the rise of AFC Wimbledon was about to start. The story of this football club is the stuff of legend. It’s about how Wimbledon FC was allowed to move 60 miles from its home, change its name, and alienate it’s entire fan base. All, according to the English Football Association, “in the wider interests of football”.

Not lying down quietly, the fan base set up their own club, held player trails on Wimbledon Common, and organised on this day 16 years ago a friendly against Sutton United. No one knew what to expect. Would anyone turn up?

As it happens, yes they would. Some 4000 fans queued outside Sutton’s ground on a balmy Wednesday evening. So many in fact that the kickoff was delayed by almost an hour to allow them all in.

The rag bag mix of players ran onto the pitch. They weren’t fit, hardly knew each other’s names, let alone where they were supposed to play, but we didn’t care. After a long hard battle to keep our club, we fans just wanted to watch football.

We lost the game, fairly easily as it turned out, but it didn’t matter. Never had a defeat seemed like a victory until that evening. I was there that evening, and the smiles on the faces as we left the ground, is a sight I’ll remember until my last breath.

We knew we were onto something special.

Roll on to 2018 and our club has multiple promotions under it’s belt, turned professional, and maintains a position in the third tier of English football. We’re not the biggest or wealthiest club by some margin, but it was never about wealth or prestige. We just wanted to get back to watching our team play football.

Whether this changes remains to be seen. It is a fact that with our success comes expectation. The sense of anger and injustice over the original decision to allow the club’s relocation is still there, and it manifests itself occasionally in a greed to get back to the Premier League.

We may well have been founder members of the Premier League, but that was almost 20 years ago. These days the league is a different place. Money abounds. Money we don’t have. We run our club on a shoestring. Our playing budget is around £3,000,000. With some Premier League players on £250,000 a week, our budget wouldn’t last long.

So for now we do our best to maintain our position. We’ve got a new ground to look forward to in around 18 months. It’s just down the road from where the old ground was before it was knocked down to make way for apartments. Whenever we play that first game back on Plough Lane, it will be another lump in the throat moment in the life of this incredible club.

The Wombles at Wembley……. again!

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.

The aftermath

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.

Happy days!

The present

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.