by Tom Nash
The words uttered by John Motson after the final whistle of the 1988 FA Cup final will live long in the memory of every football fan: “…and the Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club”. The phrase summed the occasion up perfectly. This unfashionable, physical and small club had beaten genuine giants of the game, Wimbledon denying Liverpool a second domestic double in three years. It was a Liverpool side which boasted a wealth of talent, including Peter Beardsley, Steve Nicol, Steve McMahon, Alan Hansen and Footballer of the Year John Barnes. Wimbledon’s players were, by-and-large, unheard of until that famous afternoon of 14th May 1988.
In fact, the famous commentary – much like “They think it’s all over” – doesn’t even need to be remembered, it’s repeated numerous times in opening and closing credits by whoever has coverage of the Cup that year. In many peoples’ view, Wimbledon’s unlikely triumph ranks as number one in the all-time list of upsets. Not just because of who Wimbledon were (or were not) – just eleven years previous they were a non-league side with a distinctly non-league ground at Plough Lane; but also because of who Liverpool were. Kenny Dalglish was the latest in a prestigious line of successful managers at Anfield and his team of much decorated all-stars were up against a team whose starting eleven had never won a major trophy between them.
This wasn’t just any great Liverpool side, the club had dominated the game at home and abroad, winning five league titles in the last seven years; this was a great Liverpool era. To put it in a modern context, Wimbledon beating Liverpool would be like Barcelona losing in the Copa del Ray to a Spanish club you’d never heard of. I say Barcelona rather than a dominant English team, because Barcelona are the only team in Europe at the present time to have anywhere near the level of dominance that Liverpool enjoyed in the eighties. They still haven’t achieved what Liverpool did at the time and The Reds remain a benchmark of brilliance.
Liverpool were (and still remain) one of the best supported clubs in world football and had been at the pinnacle of the game for over a decade. The late eighties saw a return to the huge popularity football had enjoyed before hooliganism had pushed the game into Britain’s cultural fringes for a brief period. Liverpool’s players were media-savvy, famous and financially well rewarded. One of the substitutes used in the game was Craig Johnstone who wrote the team’s FA Cup campaign song “Anfield Rap”, tapping into the hip-hop and house music explosion in the country at the time. As a mark of the team’s popularity, the song reached number twelve in the charts despite being absolutely horrific. Wimbledon, on the other hand, apparently had two songs out, possibly due to confusion about the club’s commercial rights. Neither achieved anything in the charts, yet further illustration of the gulf in standing between the two sides.
Liverpool were tipped to win comfortably, a score of at least 4-0 being predicted in some quarters. They were a winning machine, everything mapped out in terms of preparation. While a little slap-dash by modern standards, their set up was clinical, organised and efficient. Players knew what they had to do – training, diet, free-time, rest. They didn’t have to make any decisions of their own, they were all individual components within a well-oiled winning machine.
Wimbledon, by contrast, had never experienced anything like this before. This was, after all, the Crazy Gang. They had travelled to the semi-finals in a minibus, trained in a park, and played some of the most basic football ever seen in the modern top flight of English football. Wimbledon were expected to turn up, take a beating, and go home, never to be seen or heard from again. What happened instead ensured exactly the opposite.
Wimbledon’s build up was characteristically unorthodox– almost amateurish, perhaps because they simply didn’t have the organisation or infrastructure to stage the boot camp preparations that Liverpool did. The Crazy Gang had got their name from the juvenile antics and pranks that they played on each other – new players had their suits cut to ribbons, their shoes ruined, and far worse. The club had fostered this culture since the days of Wally Downes, the first ever full-timer on Wimbledon’s books who had been with the club during it’s remarkable rise from Fourth Division to the top flight. Even the managers were not immune to the outrageous behaviour of the Gang, and it helped to nurture a formidable team spirit amongst the players.
In the build up to the final there were two interesting things revealed through the national newspapers. Striker John Fashanu was the victim of a kiss and tell story in a tabloid publication, and Vinnie Jones was quoted in an interview saying that at Wembley he was going to rip off Dalglish’s ear and spit in the hole. This threat, whilst surely never intended to be carried out, was part of an albeit unsophisticated plan to unsettle the Liverpool team and staff, with which Wimbledon simply had no hope of competing with on a technical basis.
Liverpool reacted with indignation, this simply wasn’t the done thing. The sense of “How dare they?” pervaded the whole occasion and undoubtedly influenced the result on the day. With the benefit of hindsight it’s possible to say that Liverpool just didn’t know how to deal with Wimbledon. Certainly in the tunnel just before the teams came out, the mood of the two sides is visibly and markedly different. Liverpool, old hands at this sort of occasion, lined up almost nonchalantly – this was just a routine final that they fully expected themselves to win at a canter. As The Dons came out, they were so pumped up and aggressive they would’ve probably made a military unit think twice, let alone a group of professional athletes. Shouts of “ in the hole” could be heard, referring to the threats made by Jones, and Dalglish complained to match officials, saying that it just wasn’t on. All of the Wimbledon players were so psyched up and intimidating that Liverpool didn’t even meet their eyes, staring meekly ahead and looking shaken. They were scared. This was Wimbledon’s tactic. They knew that player for player, they were no match for Liverpool, so they had to ramp up the aggression and try to unsettle Liverpool’s game plan.
The strategy was backed up almost immediately after the kick-off, Jones going in horrendously late and high on Steve McMahon. Jones later admitted that it was a premeditated move, explaining that in order to stop Liverpool, he had to stop McMahon. By showing Liverpool’s recognised midfield “hard-man” exactly who was boss in that department, Jones showed the whole Liverpool team that the pre-match build up wasn’t just bluster and empty talk, and that they could expect a fight for every blade of grass, literally if needed. That McMahon instantly got up and didn’t complain is probably a measure of his own tough credentials, and must have been an influence on the referee who didn’t even book Jones for the foul. In the modern game, that sort of challenge would be an instant red card, and the later revelation that it was premeditated would surely result in a lengthy ban. Much has been said about that challenge since. McMahon plays it down, as he did at the time, but Jones has stated that it had a psychologically damaging effect on the whole team. Seeing the toughest tackler of your team upended in such fashion must have made them think twice about every fifty-fifty challenge from there on in.
John Barnes was also singled out for some pretty rough treatment and became increasingly frustrated as the game went on. Wimbledon rode their luck, saved from going a goal down by another baffling refereeing decision – Peter Beardsley broke through the Wimbledon defence despite being manhandled by Andy Thorne, and finished with a delicious chip over the outstanding Dave Beasant. Play was called back for a foul on Beardsley – again, if the game was being played today, advantage would’ve ensured the goal stood. The Wombles then went 1-0 up just before half-time courtesy of a Lawrie Sanchez header from a set-play.
Another scare was survived in the 61st minute when John Aldridge had a penalty saved by Dave Beasant – the first ever in an FA Cup final – and replays showed that Clive Goodyear had won the ball cleanly. They saw out the match at 1-0 and Beasant achieved another first as he was the first goalkeeper to captain a Cup-winning side upon being handed the trophy by Princess Diana atop the 39 steps.
The shock result had repercussions across football. The previously little-known club from South London were thrust into the limelight. Many of the squad moved on to bigger clubs, notably Terry Phelan to Manchester City, Jones to Leeds United, Dennis Wise to Chelsea and John Fashanu to Aston Villa. Wimbledon never won another major honour and were prevented from entering a side in The Cup Winners’ Cup because of the ban on English teams playing in Europe following the Heysel Stadium disaster. The Wimbledon board recognised that Plough Lane was not sufficient to maintain a First Division football club, and planned to build an all-seater stadium. Complications with the local council scuppered these plans, and just three years after their greatest achievement, Wimbledon FC moved from their home to ground share with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. They were never to return. Liverpool also suffered a downturn in fortunes after that infamous defeat. They managed to win the league again in 1989-90, but haven’t done so since.
The Cup final of 1988 was not the first final that Liverpool had lost, but it was the most surprising. With hindsight they underestimated Wimbledon and were perhaps taken out of their comfort zone by the physicality of Wimbledon’s style and intimidatory tactics. Liverpool were expected to win comfortably and seemed to be complacent, never expecting to lose. The style that had brought The Dons up through the divisions at such pace was ramped up to such an extent for that one occasion that Liverpool just couldn’t deal with it. If the same two squads were to meet in a series of games, Liverpool would comfortably beat Wimbledon almost every time, but that one-off occasion perhaps meant a lot more to the Wimbledon players than it did Liverpool’s serially successful players, and they made it count.