The tale of Crazy Gang

Former Wimbledon FC player Vinnie Jones, a member of the Crazy Gang, nails a Wimbledon shirt to his image on a bill board promoting the first Premier League season in July 1992. Allsport/Getty Images

There are stories in sport that are often greater than the sum of its parts. Achievements and performances, told and retold over the years - often through the romance-tinted lenses of nostalgia - that makes it sometimes difficult to discern what’s true and what’s not. But at the end of the day, does it really matter? It’s all part of the legend.

One such story from English football in the late 80s and early 90s is that of Wimbledon FC and the infamous Crazy Gang. Derided by the purists for their un-sophisticated playing style and the over the top antics and banter, they were the underdogs who overachieved. 

A team built by players who were once ‘other clubs problems’. An island of misfits who climbed from Fourth Division to the First Division in four years and enjoyed a successful period there. A club that defeated the famous Liverpool side 1-0 in the 1988 FA Cup final to enshrine their lasting legacy in defining words as said by famed commentator John Motson: 'The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club'

Perhaps driven by the criticism, the team was renowned for its camaraderie. When your back is against the wall, you look to your own. They intimidated their opponents with their physical style. The visitors to the infamous Plough Lane stadium knew they treated their own team-mates with extreme practical jokes. Among the likes of Dennis Wise, John Fashanu and Vinnie Jones - the poster boys of Wimbledon’s hard-nosed, hard-tackling and battering ram style of football - was defender Terry Phelan.

Having moved from Leeds United, his initiation into the team took him months. But once he became one of them, he was it through and through. 

“In Leeds, everything was passing the ball and building up the play. Wimbledon was more direct, more triggered, curved balls and diagonal balls, runners and winning second balls and hooking balls into channels where it would hurt the opposition. Took me six months to adapt,” says Phelan.

“I think it (the culture at the club) was the togetherness and the way the players were and where they came from. We were given a golden opportunity to play in the top division and didn’t want to give that opportunity up. Our thought was every game was our last game so we are going to put everything into it. If you breed that monster through that changing room, then it happens on the field.

“That’s not to say we were going out to hurt anyone,” Phelan is quick to correct. “I think that’s team spirit. That belief that you’re never going to get beaten. Yeah, we got beaten sometimes but we would always gear up and go again. That’s why we won the majority of our games.” 

Some of the changing room stories reportedly tell the tale of things being set on fire and copious use of dog’s fecal matter. You had two options, make or break.

“When you went into the changing room, if you’re not part of the family, then you’re out the door. And we had initiations where they cut your clothes up... you had to take that. That was being part of the family. Sometimes it went overboard,” Phelan admits.

“We went overboard to win the game. If I played as a full back, I didn’t want the right winger to run past me. The ball was there to be won, we went and won the ball. We never shrink from a challenge. That’s what the lads built into you.” 

Wimbledon survived 14 seasons in England’s top division and overachieved consistently with semifinal appearances in both FA Cup and League Cup while winning the former once.

Their highlight reels were filled with spectacular tackles, physicality and workmanlike effort. 

“It’s the intelligence about how to get the best out of your team-mates when things are not going to plan. How do you cheer them up and motivate them. Who motivates the motivator. When you need to go that extra length and draw that blood out of you again and keep going,” explains Phelan, now the technical director for Bengaluru-based South United FC. 

“People like Vinnie Jones, they had their own identity. He played in a manner that would get him success. You look at him now and he is a Hollywood star. He did a lot of good things and things we don’t really recommend. He was a true character and he left everything on that field. On the field it was about earning a living. 

“You trained to go and work and that earned you money. You only had 2-3 years contract and you weren’t earning that much money, so it kept you hungry. You go out there with that team spirit and that’s why it’s a team. You work for the team and then you work as an individual.” 

While opposition often made disparaging comments, there is no question they were affected by Wimbledon’s reputation. And the players fed off that. There are tales of Jones headbutting the toilet door ahead of the game and Fashanu practicing his martial arts in the tunnel to intimidate their opponents. It helped that they did their due diligence to ensure that they peaked for the games.

“The opposition always got affected because when they came to Plough Lane, it’s a small ground, small tunnel and small changing room with no heating in the middle of the winter. You had to come out and play against us and we would never let up. I don’t think anyone beat us for workrate.

“We beat Liverpool (in FA Cup final), we had a plan and it worked a treat because we stuck to the plan. I listened to the coaches, I did my homework on players, on their weaknesses and strengths,” says Phelan, who was part of the Republic of Ireland team that defeated the Italians in the 94 World Cup in yet another underdog success story.

Amidst all the flying tackles, swinging elbows and the era defining macho swagger, it was about a group who embraced their limitations, turned it to a strength and had fun doing it in their own unique way. After all, isn’t that what sport is all about? 

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