Niall Couper is UK spokesman for Amnesty International. If you follow the news, you’ll understand that means he’s a busy man. You’ll also understand why I, having never met him, was nervous about emailing to ask if he’d like a chat about football.
He replied within three minutes: “Friday?”
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Niall Couper is a Wimbledon fan, and Wimbledon fans are always happy to talk football. In fact, it is their enthusiasm for the game that has made Wimbledon possibly the finest football club in the world.
I first heard about their club in 1988, when it met Liverpool – the aristocrats of English football, the best team in the country, if not the world — in the FA Cup final. My great-grandmother lived in Wimbledon, a patch of south London better known for tennis, but the reason my mates and me, and millions of other Brits, cheered on the boys in blue had nothing to do with geography, and all to do with something far more important.
Wimbledon scored first, a header by Lawrie Sanchez, chiefly noticeable now for the shortness of his shorts. The iconic moment was later in the game, on the hour mark, when Liverpool’s John Aldridge – a moustachioed Irish international in his club’s famous red strip – lined up a penalty against Dave Beasant, Wimbledon’s goalkeeper, resplendent in yellow shirt and Brian May hair.
Aldridge shot to Beasant’s left. Beasant dived, full stretch, turned the ball round the post. Aldridge sank to his knees. Beasant snarled. 14 May 1988: the day when Wimbledon won the FA Cup 1-0. It was perhaps the biggest shock that the world’s oldest football competition has ever seen.
“I was there. I was behind the goal, I saw him dive,” said Couper. Couper has silver-tinged hair and the careful enunciation that is required if you’re the voice of Amnesty International. He was just 14 years old at the time, and could still describe every play of that match with the kind of detail he would normally reserve for a live human rights emergency.
“It is weird everyone remembers that one because most of Beasant’s saves in the first half hung in the air far more. But people forget that we had a lot of chances too.”
Wimbledon FC players Lawrie Sanchez and David Beasant celebrate the FA Cup upset over Liverpool. (AP Photo/Bob Dear)
Liverpool fans were no doubt heart-broken, but neutrals like me were delighted. This wasn’t because Wimbledon played attractively. The players were unsubtle to the point of brutality, and their attacks were unimaginative: a hoof up the pitch and a scramble in the goalmouth. We watched because of what they represented: hope.
Even in Britain, even then, most people only followed the top clubs – Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, the usual boring suspects — but these global mega-brands are just the glittering summit of a tall and broad pyramid. The Premier League is connected to the one beneath it, and that to the one below that. Finish at the bottom of the league, and you go down and down and down, all the way to the bottom, where games are played on Sundays by 22 blokes in a park.
Wimbledon only climbed into the full-time Football League in 1977. Yet, here they were, barely a decade later, winning the greatest prize of all. If Wimbledon could do it, could come bursting out of unfashionable south London and beat the best, then so could anyone. It should have been a movie.
“To talk about the Wimbledon story, it started a long time before the FA Cup win, the real romance of it started a long time before that and this is the point, this is what a lot of people don’t realise. And I think that to write a true story about us, you need to know that very early history,” explained Ivor Heller, a local businessman who started following the Dons, aged 11, in the 1970s.
In the 1970s, Wimbledon was easily good enough to be in the top four divisions, the Football League, where fully professional clubs played against each other. But first it had to win entry. To enter the League in those days, clubs had to apply for approval from the other members, which meant another club had to go down.
This gave fans one of humanity’s most powerful motivators: a grievance.
Not surprisingly, few League clubs were prepared meekly to commit suicide in that fashion, even if their presence in the elite was unjustified, and it took Wimbledon three years of trying before it managed to shoulder one of them aside. This welded the fans into a coherent whole, by giving them one of humanity’s most powerful motivators: a grievance.
“People ask me what my best day as a Wimbledon fan was, that it must have been winning the FA Cup,” said Heller, who is short, bearded and charismatic, like a woolier Danny DeVito.
“But that day when we got elected to the league, that was a party. I was 13 years old, doing the very best I could to get my hands on any alcohol that I could. And we had a massive party, it was unbelievable, Wimbledon were in the league.”
The Football League was packed with the game’s aristocrats, clubs who had been there since it was founded in 1888, and others who joined in its first decade or two. Even the second rank of clubs – Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday, Everton, West Bromwich Albion, Wolverhampton Wanderers – were household names throughout Britain. Wimbledon, who were they?
But Wimbledon fans didn’t care that no one knew them, that their Plough Lane stadium was dilapidated, that their budget was small. In 1977, their rocket launched, and its trajectory was near vertical.
“The real moral in the story is that 10 years later we won the FA cup. Ten years later, out of a ground like Plough Lane, absolutely impossible to fathom. It will never happen again, that is an absolute certainty,” Heller said with a laugh.
Sadly, the story did not end with the FA Cup final, with the BBC commentator praising “one of the great Cup shocks of all time”, with Princess Diana applauding demurely and the Wimbledon fans in raptures. If the fans thought they had been tested by three years of being denied promotion, they had a far harder test to come.
The seeds of the disaster were sown at least five years before that glorious Final, back in 1983, when fellow London club Tottenham Hotspur floated on the stock exchange and opened football’s door to a lava flow of hot money. Those were the years of Margaret Thatcher, when new wealth was revolutionising everything in Britain, creating a brasher, brighter, greedier, less equal country. And football was no exception, Blackburn Rovers smashed the British transfer fee record with a £3.3 million pound bid for Alan Shearer in 1992, then smashed it again two years later, with a £5 million pound bid for Chris Sutton. Those sums look quaint now (In September, Real Madrid paid £86 million for Tottenham’s Gareth Bale), but they still left Wimbledon struggling to compete.
Wimbledon quit Plough Lane in 1991, following a report that recommended that the terraces – areas where fans stood up to watch – be abolished in the top flight, to help improve safety. Plough Lane was falling apart anyway, and had no place in this brave new future. The club began to play home games at Crystal Palace’s stadium nearby. The fans didn’t know it, but they would not play a real home game for more than a decade, and that under vastly different circumstances.