It’s a pity AFC Wimbledon fans won’t be inside their new Plough Lane stadium on Tuesday night to witness an emotional return to their spiritual home after an absence of 29 years.
But older Dons fans could point out there weren’t many more watching during their Southern League days before the incredible Crazy Gang story took hold and the club rocketed from non-league to Premier League and FA Cup winners.
Those memories and more will all come flooding back when AFC take the pitch against Doncaster in League One, after three decades groundsharing at Crystal Palace or playing outside their own locality at Kingstonian.
John Fashanu (left) and Vinnie Jones are two legendary figures from Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’
Fans have always held hope that the team would return to Plough Lane, their spiritual home
The original Wimbledon left Plough Lane in 1991, the first full year of John Major’s Premiership, and controversially moved base to Milton Keynes in 2004, leading to AFC being founded and embarking on their own journey from the bottom of the football pyramid to reach the Football League in 2011.
Today, AFC are regarded as the true heirs of the Crazy Gang and being back at Plough Lane in the borough of Merton is their ultimate defining achievement.
While Wembley ’88 when they beat Liverpool to win the cup is the best-known date in Wimbledon’s history, Plough Lane is the symbol of their unique philosophy, encapsulated by men like Dave ‘Harry’ Bassett, John ‘Fash the Bash’ Fashanu and Vinnie Jones.
If one picture summed up the Plough Lane experience, it was Jones grabbing Paul Gascoigne by the testicles as he man-marked him during a Wimbledon-Newcastle game there in 1988.
After 29 years away, Tuesday night will see AFC Wimbledon play their first game back there
Jones (centre) and owner Sam Hamman (to Jones’ left) watch a match at Plough Lane in 1992
‘I feared being made being a laughing stock,’ explained Vinnie later. ‘We were jostling and he said something like ‘how much are they paying you for this, are you getting £100?’
‘That is when I reached down. I grabbed it spot on! There weren’t no fiddling about. I just grabbed and didn’t let go.’
The incident, famously captured by a photographer for posterity, showed you never knew what would happen next with the Crazy Gang.
A nondescript non-league team for most of their history, they first drew national attention when they beat First Division Burnley and held Leeds United in the FA Cup, results that helped them get voted into the Football League in 1977.
But the real Crazy Gang era only started in 1981 when a colourful and diminutive Lebanese businessman, Sam Hammam, took over as owner.
To call Hamman eccentric is putting it mildly. He once allowed manager Bobby Gould to break the club’s transfer record fee for Terry Gibson on the condition that he first swallowed a dozen sheep’s testicles. ‘I doused them in vinegar and ate the lot,’ recalls Gould.
If the Crazy Gang could be summed up in an image, it would be Jones grabbing Paul Gascoigne
Hammam was an eccentric figure, once parading an elephant around Selhurst Park in 1995
Before Gould, Hammam’s manager was Bassett who did the hard yards of getting Wimbledon all the way to the top division.
The playing style was unashamedly route one from goalkeeper Dave Beasant punting the ball forward to find the head of centre-forward John Fashanu.
Off-the-field, camaraderie was built through chaos. Wally Downes was chief rabble-rouser in the early days. His idea of fun was dangling people by their ankles into the River Thames.
Training was rough and raucous including a game called ‘Harry Ball’ – a kind of British Bulldog. Player initiations could see your clothes set alight or being locked in car boots.
‘I had my shoes nailed to the floor and Ralgex (muscle rub cream) in my pants straight away,’ recalls defender Nigel Winterburn, who went on to play for Arsenal and England.
‘Dave Bassett didn’t have a say. When we travelled, it was often Dave’s bed that would end up outside his room or, on one occasion, in the swimming pool.’
The Crazy Gang pull down their shorts during a Testimonial match for Alan Cork in May 1998
Wimbledon boss Glyn Hodges (left) is now preparing for an emotional midweek homecoming
As they rose through the divisions, a better class of player arrived. But the confrontational attitude only increased with Dennis Wise, Fashanu and Jones. And if Wimbledon’s players scared each other, they terrified the opposition, particularly at Plough Lane.
Legendary commentator John Motson, who memorably greeted Wimbledon’s Wembley glory by proclaiming ‘The Crazy Gang has beaten the Culture Club’ recalls: ‘I was a regular at Plough Lane. It was very down-to-earth. People would say they were an extension of a Sunday League team and I knew what they meant.’
Neal Ardley, who both played and managed Wimbledon, recalls: ‘It was a tight ground. Very intimidating. We’d never put the heating on in the away dressing-room. When they came out, they’d have Fash and Vinnie with their tops off, hollering.’
Alex Ferguson’s first trip to Plough Lane with Manchester United ended up in a 1-0 defeat in 1986 with Jones scoring the goal. When Everton won the league championship in 1987, they were still beaten 3-1 at The Dons in the FA Cup.
Many of the Crazy Gang’s shenanigans wouldn’t, or couldn’t, be repeated today. ‘If you couldn’t handle the stripping and the pranks and the abuse, you were f*cking out,’ said Jones.
Wimbledon rose through the leagues and won the FA Cup in 1988, beating Liverpool in the final
Wimbledon manager Dave Bassett is given a lift by two of the club’s supporters at Plough Lane
He himself admits having a fight with Gould on one occasion after being told he wouldn’t be in the team. ‘I grabbed hold of him and pushed him up against the wall – he hit his head on the little peg we put our shirts on,’ said the midfielder who later went on to use his hard-man image as an actor in Hollywood.
A documentary about the Crazy Gang exploits was aired in 2014 on BT Sport and claimed Fashanu once beat up a team-mate by throwing him around the dressing-room and smashing him against the floor.
‘Fash threw him around like a rag doll,’ said Jones during the film. ‘We had wooden benches, Fash literally lifted him up, swung him around and smashed him down.’
Though incidents like that would have been deemed unacceptable in any era, Wise said there was often a purpose to the conflict inside Wimbledon – to build a spirit to take on all-comers.
Plough Lane became a greyhound and stock car track, before becoming a football venue again
‘Eric Young kept turning up for training with his Brighton bag after he signed for us,’ recalled Wise.
‘We’d had enough of it so it got burnt. It was our way of saying, you’re not with Brighton any more, you’re with Wimbledon. We stick together and do everything together.’
In typical Crazy Gang style, the participants in the documentary started squabbling amongst themselves. One group felt it was the ‘Vinny and Fash show’ with nobody else getting a proper voice. Bassett and Downes in particular felt the programme highlighted Wembley at the expense of years of toil getting the club into the top flight.
Controversy aside, for a club on gates of a few thousand to finish in the top half of the First Division or Premier League is an amazing feat. Wimbledon did it seven times between 1987 and 1997.
The original Wimbledon relocated to Milton Keynes and became MK Dons – they are pictured playing against the phoenix club AFC Wimbledon on Saturday afternoon. It ended in a 1-1 draw
When Gary Lineker said the best way to watch Wimbledon was on Ceefax and added that Jones ‘isn’t a good player and no benefit to the game’, the club put out a statement saying the England striker ‘has the charisma of a jellyfish – and is just as wet’.
The supporters didn’t deserve what happened to their club when they left the Wimbledon area in 1991. They stayed in the Premier League for nearly another decade but never at ‘home’.
Relegation saw Hammam sell with new owner Pete Winkleman treating the club like a franchise. The fans built their club, AFC Wimbledon, from scratch and now they have their reward. Wimbledon are back at Plough Lane – the original Crazy Gang will be proud of them.